Los Angeles — As the National Basketball Association playoffs head into the conference finals this weekend with Milwaukee at Philadelphia and San Antonio at Los Angeles, there's still no reason to believe that the 76ers aren't the best team in either group.
Even though Milwaukee attracted far more media attention by sweeping the Boston Celtics while Philadelphia was eliminating the New York Knicks in similar fashion, too much significance has probably been placed on the Bucks' victory.
While Milwaukee played extremely well, held Boston under 100 points in all four games, and showcased two super-stars in forward Marques Johnson and guard Sidney Moncrief, the Bucks beat a Celtics team that had been having internal problems all year. In fact, Boston played the final month of the season as if in a trance.
Bill Fitch used so many different starting combinations during the regular season that people were beginning to wonder if the Boston coach was really baseball's Gene Mauch in disguise. Bill also bruised a few egos this year when he reduced the playing time of Nate Archibald and Cedric Maxwell; often ignored Danny Ainge's inexperience in certain situations; and never gave Larry Bird enough rest.
As far as the upcoming Eastern Conference finals between Philadelphia and Milwaukee are concerned, the Bucks simply don't match up well enough against the 76ers to be given more than an outside chance of pulling off an upset. That is, unless the Bucks catch lightning in a bottle, which happens occasionally in professional sports.
If Johnson and Moncrief cancel out Philadelphia stars Julius Erving and Andrew Toney respectively on offense, that still leaves Milwaukee with the problem of stopping Philadelphia's multitalented 6 ft. 10 in. center, Moses Malone.
Pay no attention to those stories which say Malone is tired, his legs won't hold up, and that the Bucks will wear him down physically by alternating Bob Lanier, Alton Lister, and Harvey Catchings against him.
At 28, Moses is still a relentless workhorse who averaged more than 15 rebounds and 24 points a game during the regular season and needs motivation the way the US government needs more surplus cheese. Malone was the league's Most Valuable Player last year with Houston and nothing has changed except his mailing address. Furthermore, he's been at his best so far in this year's playoffs, coming up with those key rebounds whenever his team seemed to need them most.
In the Western Conference finals, the defending world champion Lakers might almost be considered underdogs against San Antonio, which won four of their five regular season meetings, including two at the Los Angeles Forum.
When the Lakers' Magic Johnson was asked why he and his teammates hadn't played better against the high-scoring Spurs this year, Johnson replied: ''Anytime a franchise trades for a player the quality of Artis Gilmore (who San Antonio got from Chicago during the off-season), it changes a team's personality , which is what happened here. With Gilmore at center, the Spurs have become much more aggressive and much more confident about their game. They know if they make a mistake on defense, Artis is back there to pick up their man. They also know that he's going to block shots and get rebounds for them.
''But the main reason we lost to San Antonio four times during the regular season isn't because they are a better team than we are, but because we never learned how to play them. It's not like we hadn't seen Gilmore before or didn't know what he could do; that's not the point. The point is that he's playing with people now that his presence has made better. But I guarantee you that in the next few days we'll learn the things we have to know about them.''
The Lakers, who beat Portland four games to one while San Antonio was eliminating Denver by the same count, begin their best-of-seven series with the Spurs Sunday afternoon. The game follows the 76ers-Bucks opener on CBS-TV.
Because of the physical kind of game Gilmore plays, Artis has always been one of the toughest centers in the league the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar must face.
For Los Angeles to beat San Antonio, Kareem is going to have to get more rebounds and more help on the boards from his teammates than he got against the Trail Blazers. The Lakers-Spurs series should go seven tough games and in no way resemble LA's sweep of San Antonio last season.