Squashing speculation that his game was vanishing, Julius Erving looked like a young Dr. J today as he employed an assortment of spectacular moves that left the Milwaukee Bucks breathless and on the brink of elimination from the NBA Eastern Conference finals.
Erving scored 26 points, 10 of them in the final 7:38, and had eight rebounds to lead the Philadelphia 76ers, 104-96, at Milwaukee Arena. The 76ers took a 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven series.
Game 4 will be played here Sunday (WDVM-TV-9 at 1 p.m.).
After going three for 11 in Game 2, and not having scored more than 20 points in any of Philadelphia's previous six playoff games, Erving had been bombarded with unnerving questions about where his game had gone.
Uncharacteristically for Erving, he left the arena for the team's hotel, which is across the street, almost immediately after the game, declining to talk to the press other than to say, "See you tomorrow."
"If there were any questions about Julius Erving, I think they were answered today," said Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham.
"I knew there would be a time when Doc broke out," said guard Maurice Cheeks. "Today was it."
While Erving and Moses Malone (25 points, 14 rebounds) kept the 76ers going most of the game, it was the 5-foot-10 Cheeks who provided perhaps the biggest lift in one 97-second span of the final period.
The Bucks, who had led by as many as 11 points in the first half, opened the fourth quarter with six straight points, four of them by rookie Paul Pressey, to move ahead, 78-71, with 9:57 left.
Cunningham called time out and replaced Malone with Erving and Andrew Toney with Cheeks.
Cheeks responded with seven straight points on three layups and a free throw, to tie the score at 80 with 8:20 remaining. Cheeks drove by Brian Winters twice for easy baskets and then stole the ball from the Bucks guard at midcourt and took it in for the tying layup.
"I had been checking out the way he was handling the ball when I was on the bench," said Cheeks, "and I felt I could steal the ball at the right time."
The right time came as Winters was dribbling upcourt and calling a play at the same time. He lost sight of Cheeks for a split second, and that was long enough, as Cheeks grabbed the ball from behind and was gone.
"I'd been pretty good at protecting the ball, but on that play, as I turned, I didn't protect it and he made a great play," said Winters.
"We've contained Moses at times and even controlled Doc, but we've never been able to stop Cheeks," said Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson. "He's quicker than anyone I have except for Charlie Criss. We have mostly bigger guards which makes it difficult to play him (Cheeks)."
Bob Lanier regained the lead for the Bucks with an offensive rebound basket, but then it was time for Erving to take over. He scored on a 17-foot banker, a driving dunk from the left side and on a fast-break scoop layup to help the 76ers to an 86-83 lead.
The Bucks tied the score at 88 on a 22-footer by Junior Bridgeman (24 points) with 4:42 left, but Erving gave the 76ers a lead they would never relinquish with a 15-footer over Bridgeman on the 76ers' next possession.
The 76ers were ahead, 92-90, when Malone sealed the victory with five straight points on a power move in the lane, a free throw and a line-drive, 12-foot turnaround jumper over Lanier.
"They're awful good, I can say that," Nelson said of the 76ers. "They've put the defensive clamps on us when they've had to down the stretch in all of the games. We played a fine game, but they're just better."
Nelson changed his starting lineup for the third straight game as he went with Winters in place of Pressey. Winters went two for 12.
"It was a must game for us, so I thought I'd go with my veterans," said Nelson. "I need help to come up with anything new now. We aren't going to let up, though, I know that. We'll play just as hard tomorrow (Sunday) as we did in the first three games."
No team in NBA history has come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a best- of-seven series.
The 76ers have won seven straight playoff games, two shy of the league record, and only one other team, the Los Angeles Lakers last season, has ever swept back-to-back, best-of-seven series.
"The one thing we have to guard against now is not letting up at all. We don't want to let them get any confidence," said Cunningham.
"In every game so far, they've made the plays and we haven't," said Milwaukee's Sidney Moncrief, "but we aren't going to quit. We can't make any more changes, we've made them all. All we can do now is just play hard and try to have some fun.
"They've taken a lot out of us, but we still have our pride left."