1983-84 Boston Celtics
For the Philadelphia 76ers, it was a rude awakening. The pressure to win an NBA championship in recent years was intense, but it was nothing compared with what they are running into these days as defending champions. It is an old story in the NBA, where no champion has repeated in 14 seasons. But it seems like a cruel joke in Philadelphia, where winning it all became a passion in recent years and the hue and cry did not die down until the 76ers finally emerged last season.
The 76ers are off to another fast start, winning seven of their first 10 games. But Moses Malone and Julius Erving are finding they can't sneak up on any team. Andrew Toney seems to have a hand in his face at every shot. Suddenly, teams are successfully using an aggressive trapping defense that the 76ers used to break with ease. "I don't think we're ever going to have an easy game," says 76ers coach Billy Cunningham with a half-smile. "I think these guys are trying to put me in an early grave. But the thing we have going for us is that our guys know how to win.
"Right now, we're at a point where we're not all in sync. We're just going to have to put it all together on a consistent basis." The alarm has been sounded in Philadelphia by its active news media and eager fans, who found that the five months following the 76ers' defeat of the Lakers in the NBA finals passed so quickly that there was scarcely time to enjoy what happened. And now the 76ers must do it all over again, mindful of what is happening in Boston, where the Celtics are also off to a fast start.
"Early last year," said veteran guard Maurice Cheeks, "we had a lot of easy games, and we were expecting everything to be the same. Now, we're coming out and having a lot of hard games. But I think it will be beneficial to us later on." Added second-year man Marc Iavaroni: "Teams are going to come at us every night. I think we're getting to the point where we can accept them. Hopefully, we'll grow out of this tendency to just play the last quarter."
The problem, said Cunningham, is that teams need no artificial incentives to beat his club, and the 76ers must also be up every night. There have been more bodies around Malone than ever. Opponents have pressured the 76ers from the opening whistle, and, as a result, almost all of Philadelphia's victories have come in second-half surges. Cunningham cited 80- to 90-percent efficiency in the playoffs last year as proof the 76ers aren't really bothered by trapping guards. But that was last year, and this year, the 76ers' guards have had many traps thrown at them that have been effective for at least a half.
Erving, still the heart of the 76ers offense, says panic is not in Philadelphia's vocabulary. "I think you have to take certain things into consideration," he said. "It's early. There is a lot of room between where we want to go and where we are. We know. We keep talking about it. We keep practicing. "The media has brought a whole lot of attention to it. The team is a shadow of itself. It should be better. It should be playing easy games. All the things we haven't done . . . It's a heck of a way to live. I don't totally buy it.
"Let's put it this way. When it's time, it will happen. That's the confidence we have. We know it's not going to be the result of us awakening and suddenly it's there. It will be the result of continuing to do the things that are good and eliminating the things that are not so good. I don't have a time schedule. But it seems the sooner the better." Malone, the NBA's most valuable player last year, said teams are forcing him to take jump shots, something he doesn't particularly like to do; and this means he must work harder inside.
"I'm trying to get my power game back in order," he said. "But it's going to take some time. I've got to fight for better position and keep it. Set up low, like I want to. Then, it will be a more easy game for me. "Believe me, we're not looking at the past. We're trying to win. A lot of teams are coming in here and playing hard against us. That makes it difficult for us because we have to be prepared every game, no matter who we are playing, because they want to beat us.
"But we've got to be ready to go. We've only played nine or 10 games. When we really get it going, 20 or 30 games, it's going to be a big turnaround. Right now, we're struggling a little bit. I think it will loosen up once we play every team."