If ever a team appeared to be a budding dynasty, it was the Philadelphia 76ers in the spring of 1983. They had just finished polishing off the Lakers in a four-game sweep to win the NBA championship most impressively.
The team breezed through the playoffs with an unprecedented 12-1 record. They had the most dominating force in the sport, center Moses Malone. They also had a pair of quick, talented, young guards, Andrew Toney and Maurice Cheeks. In addition, the magnificent Dr. J., Julius Erving, seemed at his peak.
With those ingredients the 76ers appeared ready to dominate for some years to come.
It is now two years later and the 76ers have never come back to that playoff peak. They finished behind Boston in the regular schedule last season and were knocked out of the playoffs by New Jersey. This season, despite the addition of talented, bulky Charles Barkley, they started out behind Boston and never caught up.
Lately, things have gone from bad to worse. A desperate Coach Billy Cunningham has tried everything from lineup changes to screaming to clubhouse meetings.
Finally, Sunday at Philadelphia after three successive defeats, the 76ers did two things before taking on the hot Denver Nuggets. First, there was the usual meeting to clear the air. Then, Cunningham went back to the lineup he used in the playoff sweep in 1983.
Toney, in and out of the starting lineup all season, put together a triple double and the 76ers smashed the Nuggets, 124-103.
Toney scored 28 points, had 12 assists and grabbed 11 rebounds. In the revamped lineup, Toney paired with Cheeks in the back court and Bobby Jones replaced Barkley as the forward opposite Erving. Malone, playing in only his second game after missing three because of a sprained ankle, was at center.
The 76ers came out running, jumped to a 34-20 first-quarter lead and never permitted the Nuggets to get into the game. The 76ers looked like champions. There was one scary moment. Barkley slipped on the slick Spectrum floor in the first quarter and fell, landing on his wrist. X-rays indicated no break.
In the 76ers' embarrassing 131-112 loss to Milwaukee Friday night, an angry Cunningham yelled at the rookie Barkley during a timeout, then took out his frustration on the basketball, giving it a kick as a referee was about to retrieve it.
Erving, the captain, called the players-only meeting. "We tried to establish a new direction because we had lost three in a row," Erving said. "We were talking with one another, talking about our pluses and minuses in such a way that no one took it the wrong way."
Cunningham, who did not stay around to meet the press Friday night after his ejection, said the win didn't completely break the slump.
"We have to build confidence within ourselves and how we approach the game as a team," he said. "Today is the way we'd like to start playing from this point on."
All is not serene. Toney, after his first triple double and a career-high in rebounds, hid out from the media.
Doug Moe, whose Nuggets lead the Midwest Division by four games with 11 games to play, was thrown out in the third quarter on his second technical. He probably considered it a blessing. "We were pathetic," he said.
San Antonio 104, Seattle 99--The SuperSonics had hopes of sneaking into the last spot in the playoffs in the West, but when they lost Jack Sikma, their best player, for the season last week, it took away their playoff hopes, too.
In this game at San Antonio, the SuperSonics lost their second in a row without their star center and fell two games behind Phoenix in the battle for the eighth playoff berth.
The Sonics made it close, but when the well-rested George Gervin came off the bench to score eight of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, the Spurs pulled it out.
Gervin started but played only 17 minutes. He sat out the third quarter. He made a long jumper and a layup late in the game after Seattle closed to within four points.
Utah 110, Chicago 92--Adrian Dantley, slowly returning to top form after missing 15 games because of a hamstring injury, scored 29 points and made a couple of key assists at Salt Lake City.
It was passes from Dantley that set up two hook shots by Mark Eaton and gave the Jazz the lead for good midway through the third quarter. Dantley started for the second game in a row after being brought back slowly.
"My aching body is just starting to get used to the bumping again," Dantley said. "I should be in top form by the time the playoffs start.
Rookie Michael Jordan scored 15 of his 26 points in the first half to enable the Bulls to take a 43-39 lead in a low-scoring 24 minutes.