Sometimes basketball is a simple game: move the ball, shoot well from the outside to open up the inside, drive hard to the basket and force the defense to give you position to rebound any misses.
In Game 4 of the NBA Eastern Conference final series today, the Philadelphia 76ers did all of those things and beat the Boston Celtics, 115-104, to force a fifth game. Down by 3-1 in games, Philadelphia will try to draw a game closer on Wednesday in Boston.
Today, for the first time in this best-of-seven set, the 76ers played as they had in beating the Bullets, 3-1, and Milwaukee, 4-0, in previous series. Beginning with a 31-16 first-quarter spree in which Julius Erving scored four points and Charles Barkley got 10 rebounds and scored on a three-point field goal, Philadelphia had things its way.
Andrew Toney led the 76ers with 26 points. Fellow guard Maurice Cheeks had 22 and Moses Malone 21 for Philadelphia, whose only anxious moments came shortly before the end of the first half when the team's mascot performed a Mexican hat dance over a Celtics' pennant.
Usually such a routine would provoke a rush from Boston. Today, though, there was nothing forthcoming from the defending champions, who were called for four technical fouls, including one for playing with four men on the court.
And rookie Barkley finished with a game-high 20 rebounds.
"They took every part of the game away from us," said Boston's Dennis Johnson. "Everything they did was positive, but it's nothing that we weren't expecting. They were trying to avoid a sweep, and we didn't help matters the way we played in the first three quarters."
Kevin McHale led Boston with 25 points, but the team suffered from an overall lack of shooting, the main offender being Larry Bird, who was four of 15. The Celtics shot 45 percent and that, along with 22 turnovers, contributed to their inability to get within nine points of Philadelphia between the 1:23 mark of the first quarter and the last 8:16.
It was then that Johnson's layup made it 89-81. After a timeout, Malone's three consecutive jumpers helped keep the Celtics at bay.
"We would have done anything to win today -- I know I would have," said Barkley.
But if the 76ers were playing their hearts out, the Celtics maintained a consistency that was disturbing to Coach K.C. Jones.
"We came out like we've done for the last three games," he said. "We didn't do anything different. We were taking bad shots and making turnovers, but we didn't have the blahs."
After a one-for-10 performance in which he scored five points in Game 3 Saturday, Erving came back to shoot four for 21, but his overall play was fairly good. "I played with a lot of emotion today, although the outcome of the game was decided on young legs," he said. "The veterans did a good job, but the young guys pulled us through."
The youngest player for the 76ers today was rookie Barkley, who started at forward in place of Bobby Jones. Barkley had said before Game 3 that if the 76ers didn't win that game, they would be vacationing in the Bahamas by the end of the following week. Today, though, he said he wasn't ready to leave yet.
"It's a funny situation, hearing people say that you have to do things like it's with your last breath," he said, "but that's what happened today. They were in a no-lose situation today. I don't take back anything I've said, and I'm not a fool. Things don't look good, and no one's ever done it before (come back from an 0-3 deficit), but there's a first time for everything."
Parts of today's game bordered on the ridiculous. On one of the Celtics' technical fouls, Toney missed the free throw but was given another chance because Bird was called for obstructing the shot by talking to the shooter. Later, during a Boston timeout, Big Shot, the 76ers' mascot, struck again.
Placing a mannequin dressed in a Celtics uniform on a trampoline, the creature was going to spring off it to dunk a basketball, but before he could, the Celtics' M.L. Carr removed the dummy to a hail of boos from the sellout crowd of 17,653 at the Spectrum. Undaunted, a second attempt met with success.
That was not unlike everything else Philadelphia attempted. "We latched onto something that worked and, hopefully, it will help us on Wednesday," Erving said. "We put together two pretty good halves, but I think we all feel that we can still play better as a team.
"Actually, neither one of our squads has been awesome in the series. If one of us reaches our full potential, look out."