Something always happens to the defending NBA champs: It's the Bill Russell curse. No team has won back-to-back championships since Russell coached and rebounded the 1968-69 Celtics to a repeat performance. Fourteen champions have failed to repeat, and each failure inflates the achievement of the Russell Celtics, who won eight straight championships and 11 in 13 years.
The Philadelphia 76ers look to be the latest victims of the curse. One year after storming to the NBA title with 12 wins in 13 playoff games, the 76ers find themselves down, 2-0, in a best-of-five series against the New Jersey Nets. The 1956 Fort Wayne Pistons are the only NBA team ever to win a best-of- five series after an 0-2 start, but the Sixers have already lost two home games. New Jersey can wrap it up at the Meadowlands this afternoon (1, Ch. 7), or Tuesday night, when they'll be home again.
Like the 1982-83 Celtics, the 76ers have been stumbling all season and are ripe for a playoff upset. Moses Malone was 15 pounds overweight for most of the season, injuries decimated the squad, and the Sixers played without the hunger they had last season. Considering the level of competition, there can be no excuse for a team with Philly's talent playing sub-.500 ball for two months.
Last year's Celtics went through a similar late-season stumble, but assured everyone that things would be OK when the playoffs rolled around. That was right before Sidney Moncrief and Marques Johnson danced on their faces in four straight games. The same thing has happened to Philadelphia, and now it appears the 76ers have waited too long to turn on the gas.
Compounding Philly's problems, the sluggish Sixers happen to be the unlucky unit standing in the path of the New Jersey Nets, who are finally playing like a team with eight first-round draft picks and one of the best coaches in the league. "I really can't explain what's happening to the team," Nets coach Stan Albeck said after Friday night's 116-102 victory at the Spectrum (New Jersey led, 79-55, in the third quarter). "We are seeing a very loose basketball team playing with confidence."
One cannot minimize the impact of Jersey's often-troubled guard, Micheal Ray Richardson. Free at last, Richardson has been a force of incalculable value in the first two games. His Friday night performance (32 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds, 4 steals, 3 three-pointers) was truly a game for the ages. "Micheal Ray has his problems whipped," said Albeck. "You saw the true return to form of an All-Star. Remember, he has actually played only half a season. He's using all eight cylinders, and most people aren't."
Meanwhile, Darryl Dawkins has been a steady force in the middle (he must be loving this), Albert King is a terror off the bench, and Buck Williams is the same stud he's been for three years. The Nets have exploited Maurice Cheeks' injuries (knee tendinitis and a head laceration) and Julius Erving's age, while running at every opportunity and playing effective double-team defense. "There's not much I can say," Sixers coach Billy Cunningham moaned Friday night. "They again played a whale of a basketball game, and Micheal Ray Richardson absolutely killed us . . . We have to forget everything and go out and work as hard as we've ever worked in our lives. We can only think of one thing, and that's Sunday's game."
Planting the seed, Cunningham added, "I've been up, 3-1, and lost, and I know that sometimes it's very difficult to win that last game." The Sixers are capable of winning three in a row. Remember, these are the same people who beat the Knicks in four, the Bucks in five and the Lakers in four last spring. If Philly fails, the league will be without its showcase series (Celtics- Sixers) for the second straight year, but that won't bother the Celtics. Lack of a Celtics-Sixers series didn't tarnish Philly's march to the crown last year, and the Celtics are thoroughly enjoying watching the Sixers fall downstairs now.
Red Auerbach believes K.C. Jones deserves the Coach of the Year award. The ever-humble Jones believes Utah's Frank Layden deserves the honor, but doesn't appreciate the stuff that impresses voters. "It's all politics," said Jones. "It's all on how you promote yourself. It has nothing to do with the record on the court. Personality seems to be the whole thing. That's not right. It should be on results, not on how much you mouth off to the press." K.C.'s candidate? "It's no question at all. It's got to be Layden. If he doesn't get it, there's something wrong. He turned that team around." . . . While we're on the subject of awards, it seems curious that Larry Bird is voted (by league coaches) to the NBA's all-league defensive team, even though Cedric Maxwell guards every opponents' toughest forward.
If the Pistons-Knicks series goes the limit, the fifth game will be played at the Joe Louis Arena in downtown Detroit Friday night. The Pontiac Silverdome is being used for Motocross races that night. Speaking of Detroit, the Bullets are said to be very interested in prospective free agent Kelly Tripucka . . . If you need something to fill a hole in the dinner conversation today, point out to your guests that the Houston Rockets committed more personal fouls than any NBA team this season. You could also add that the Pistons led the league in offensive rebounds, the Nuggets had the best free throw percentage (.818), the Clippers had the poorest free throw percentage (.736), and the Lakers set an NBA record with a field goal percentage of .532 . . . Ralph Sampson and Steve Stipanovich certainly turned things around for Houston and Indiana. The Rockets and Pacers finished dead last in their conferences for the second straight year . . . The Celtics were happy to note that Philadelphia's top pick (from San Diego) will be No. 5, instead of 1 or 2 . . . Hope you noticed that old friend Paul Westphal is starting in the backcourt for the Phoenix Suns now that the playoffs are here . . . We're told that the folks who won cars in the Bay State Bombardiers' free throw promotion finally got the autos . . . Celtics aerobic instructor Louis Boland ran the Marathon in 3:47 . . . Happy 35th birthday, Spencer Haywood.