The Philadelphia 76ers' Moses Malone entered Game 1 of the best-of-five series with the Washington Bullets fully aware of the grueling, physical nature of postseason basketball.
Having just completed his ninth season in the NBA, the 6-foot-10, 265-pound center had participated in 63 playoff games, with vivid memories of triple-team defenses and the accompanying flying elbows.
The Bullets' Cliff Robinson, however, looked upon the game with the wide-eyed innocence of a child waiting for Christmas morning. Through a six-year, 411-game NBA career, Robinson never had played in a game after the regular season.
"So, this is the playoffs," Robinson sighed after his team had lost, 104-97, to the Sixers Wednesday.
Actually, the game wasn't truly indicative of the playoffs, often being devoid of the electricity and drama that is synonymous with the league's second season. Much of that could be attributed to the small crowd of 7,170 at the Spectrum, not to mention 44 turnovers committed by the two teams. Yet, Robinson knew he had participated in something special.
"It was more of an intense game, no doubt about it," he said after getting 24 points and nine rebounds. "It seemed like every play was important. Not that that doesn't happen in the regular season, but tonight it was the start of the game and you could see where you had to have this bucket or you had to stop that player or get him into foul trouble. I'm looking forward to Sunday."
During his time in the NBA, Robinson had the misfortune of being on some of the poorest teams in the league, infinitely more prone to layoffs than playoffs.
"I couldn't say how close any team I've been on has been to the playoffs," he said. "Maybe in Kansas City we had a chance, but they let (forward) Scott Wedman get away and (center) Sam Lacey was at the end of his career. New Jersey had some good people but everyone was in and out. That was a lot like Cleveland (where Robinson struggled on two losing teams)."
On Wednesday, Bullets Coach Gene Shue found himself with a number of good people present. Much had been made of Shue starting Darren Daye at small forward with Greg Ballard coming off the bench. But at game's end, Robinson had accumulated the most time in that position. Taking advantage of the 76ers' lack of height, Shue often sent out a front line of 6-9 Robinson, 6-9 Charles Jones and 6-11 Jeff Ruland.
The trio was predominately responsible for the Bullets' 43-40 edge in rebounding, but there were stretches when they displayed a lack of cohesiveness, unaccustomed as they were to playing together. After the game, Shue said the big front court deserved more of a look in the series' second game Sunday in Philadelphia, provided they can mesh a bit more effectively in practice between now and then.
"If we run a lot of post-up plays it might work having the three of them in together, but it isn't very smooth," Shue said. "We could run a lot of good plays for Cliff at the small forward spot, things like post-ups, but he has to learn them all."
Moses Malone didn't get the opportunity to go head to head against Robinson in the playoff opener, but he said it wouldn't surprise him if that happens later in this series. Malone has guarded centers and forwards, both big and small, throughout his career, and that versatility came in handy against the Bullets.
Although he had just five rebounds (eight fewer than his regular season average), Malone had a game-high 26 points and led Philadelphia with six steals, two in the final 3:30 to help the Sixers come from behind. Still, Malone was distressed at his team's inability to hold onto a lead. The 76ers had leads ranging from five to 11 points, but never were able to put Washington away.
"Our job isn't going to be easy but we gotta get that desire to kill," he said. "Once we get a big lead we should hold it and win by 20 points. I hate to see games like that (back and forth). I'm not there to play close games."
Some may be wondering if the 76ers can play any other way. Over the final 25 games of the regular season, they were 13-12 and looked like anything but one of the NBA's major powers. Had the Bullets been able to hold on to their two-point lead in the final five minutes of the game, the loss might have been devastating. The Sixers had not won a home playoff game since Game 2 of the 1983 championship series against the Los Angeles Lakers, losing three postseason games at the Spectrum in falling to the New Jersey Nets a year ago.
Also, in the 36 best-of-five series played in NBA history, the team that took the first contest went on to win 30 times. Malone may not have been aware of that fact but he does know his team.
"It's that time of the year now," he said. "We struggled in the last 25 games but we're just a different team now, we're gonna show more desire and determination."
Malone's desire is fueled by the presence of Ruland, the Bullets' center who is returning from a strained right shoulder after missing more than half the regular season.
"That's great, I'm glad he's back," Malone said. "All that does is make me play more defense. I think I can neutralize him, but if they keep trying to go to him that means they won't be running plays for their great shooters like Gus (Williams) and (Jeff) Malone."
Jeff Malone, who wrenched his back in the first half of Wednesday's game, should be available to play Sunday.