After what seemed like months of sub-playoffs (actually it was only a few weeks), the World Series of professional basketball begins its final run tonight in Philadelphia, a best-of-seven series between the 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers.
In fact, it almost seems as if the Lakers, who last played a game on May 15 against San Antonio, are coming out of seclusion to vie for the title.
If Los Angeles loses Game No. 1 to Philadelphia, people are going to say that the Lakers were too rested, which caused them to misplace their timing and worse. If the 76ers lose, it will be because they are exhausted from having just come off a seven-game war with the Boston Celtics.
The fact is if either club allows this kind of reasoning to creep into its thinking, then the real issue of which is the better team is going to become hopelessly clouded. But if they can forget all that stuff and simply play the game on a strip of hardwood 94 feet long by 50 feet wide, then this could be one of the best series since silver certificates.
Philadelphia, after letting Boston off the hook twice in the Eastern Conference playoff finals, seems to have a limited warranty on stability. The 76 ers can be great one night and mediocre the next.
The reason for that stems chiefly from their situation at center, a position held down alternately by 6 ft. 11 in. Darryl Dawkins and 7 ft. 1 in. Caldwell Jones, with the latter sometimes moving to a forward spot in situations where Coach Billy Cunningham wants both big men in the game.
Jones nearly always plays well defensively, but to be truly effective he has to be hitting his outside shot as well -- yet his 7.9 regular season scoring average doesn't figure to go up that much in the playoffs.
Dawkins, meanwhile, is the inconsistent type who can be devastating one night and hardly noticeable the next. Although Darryl's slam-dunks are as final as mailing a letter, his lack of rebounding in big games often places too big a burden on forwards Bobby Jones and Julius Erving. He also still appears bothered by the leg injury which sidelined him for nearly half of the regular National Basketball Association season.
As the No. 1 reserve for both Erving and Bobby Jones, Mike Bantom rebounds well, but rarely does a whole lot offensively.
Against Boston, especially with Tiny Archibald injured, Philadelphia made the most of its backcourt superiority. The 76ers got consistently strong performances from Maurice Cheeks and some spectacular ones from Andrew Toney, who saw more action than usual against the Celtics because of a hand injury incurred by Lionel Hollins. The latter saw only limited action in the Boston series but is expected to be more of a factor in this one - either in his old starting role or off the bench.
If all this makes the 76ers sound like a good team but one with too many question marks to have much chance against the mighty Lakers, forget it, because they do. While they may not say so publicly, the Philadelphia players feel that they have already beaten the best team in the league in Boston. And the chances are they are convinced in their own minds that nobody on the Lakers can contain either Erving or Toney.
If you are buying Los Angeles as the eventual winner of this series, and a lot of people are after the way the Lakers swept both Phoenix and San Antonio, the statistics are there to back you up.
Los Angeles has not lost since April 13, when it dropped a 106 - 101 decision at Golden State. Including the playoffs, the Lakers have now won 11 consecutive games, 15 of their last 16, 18 of their last 20, and 23 of their last 27 dating back to March 14.
During that stretch center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has probably played as well as anyone in the league. And a Kareem who is willing to take a few elbows in the face and chest when he turns toward the basket with the ball is unstoppable. While the sky hook is easier on Abdul-Jabbar physically, it doesn't carry the same guarantee as the turn-in dunker.
At the forward positions, Jamaal Wilkes is one of the game's best pure shooters and probably nobody on the Lakers has benefited more from these extra days off than Wilkes, whose reserve tank is not that large. And while rookie Kurt Rambis may appear slow and awkward at times, he will at least make Dr. J pay a physical price for his baskets. The Lakers have also been getting superb offense off the bench from much maligned Bob McAdoo, who also tries to play some defense.
The Lakers appear to have an edge at the guard positions, where Magic Johnson and Norman Nixon have finally learned to blend the running, shooting, and playmaking parts of their game so that neither one needs the ball that much. And while third guard Michael Cooper is not the shooter that Toney is, his defense against Andrew should have a lot to do with who wins this series.
As for rival coaches Cunningham and Pat Riley, their main job will be in the Department of Matchups and Timeouts. Riley has had a phenomenal year for a rookie coach who didn't take over until partway into the season. Cunningham, on the other hand, has more experience and made some outstanding floor moves in Philadelphia's final game victory against Boston.