The Strangler Struggles

May 18, 1985

Say what you will about Andrew Toney, that the Boston Strangler has become the Boston Struggler, that Albert DeSalvo, or even Tony Curtis, could play better than the Philadelphia guard has played against the Celtics.

Just don't say what 76er Coach Billy Cunningham did this week, that he is considering benching Toney for today's Game 3 of the Eastern Conference championship series at the Spectrum.

Cunningham's threat, challenge, or whatever it was, has diverted the 76ers' attention inward, back to their own troubles and away from the Celtics, who were troublesome enough in winning the first two games of the series in Boston.

"A lineup change?" said 76er captain Julius Erving when he heard about Cunningham's possible adjustment.

"I don't know. Give us a chance to play at home the way we are. A lineup change could be misleading. If we start out well, it could be interpreted as because Andrew's not in there, and that may not be true."

Even the man Cunningham said might replace Toney, guard Clint Richardson, told reporters he thought it was a bad idea.

"I don't like it," he said. "Right now, we have problems, and we don't need any more problems. We just have to stay together.

"It shows them (the Celtics) that we're worrying about ourselves too much instead of just going out and playing. Our priorities are wrong. We're worrying about things too much."

The only player who didn't seem concerned was Toney.

"If coming off the bench will help us win, sure, I'll do that," he said.

Toney certainly hasn't played like Andrew Toney in this series, particularly in Game 2 Tuesday night, when he made only 3 of 17 shots and accepted blame for the 106-98 loss.

This was the same man who once scored 25 points against the Celtics -- in one quarter. On the day the series opened, The Boston Globe said of Toney: "Garden regulars believe he was put on this earth to torment the Celtics."

You can imagine what the Boston papers were saying after the game.

The headline in the Herald read: "The Boston Strangler Chokes."

The Celtics traded with Milwaukee in 1982 for Quinn Buckner because they needed someone who could guard Toney. When the Celtics became convinced that Buckner wasn't that someone, they traded with Phoenix in 1983 for Dennis Johnson.

Toney treated Johnson as if he were any other Celtic last season, but Johnson got even this season. In six regular-season games against the Celtics, Toney shot 40% and averaged 13.8 points.

Johnson accepts credit for that, but not for the way Toney has been shut down in the playoffs.

"I haven't shut Andrew down," he said. "Guarding him is no fun, but you can always hope he's going to have a bad shooting night.

"I've said many times that when he's on, he can do anything he wants to do to anyone guarding him, because when he gets hot he gets a little hotter than most.

"Besides, in the first game, he shot 7 for 11. By my calculations, that means he only missed four shots. No, you just try to make him work that much harder and hope he'll get a little tired, and you cherish the occasions when he's not hitting."

In an attempt to correct that, Toney shot baskets Wednesday, while the rest of his teammates took a day off, and then stayed after practice Thursday to shoot.

"I had a bad game," he said. "But it's not like I had two bad games in a row. I don't feel like I'm in a slump. If I have a second bad game, you could consider it that."

If Toney has another bad game today, the 76ers figure they might as well call it a season.

"When Andrew's in a shooting slump, we're like a ship without a rudder," Richardson said.

For that reason, the 76ers believe that Cunningham should be doing everything he can to encourage Toney, instead of talking about benching him.

But then there's been criticism of Cunningham's handling of Toney all season long. It began after Cunningham began using Toney as the point guard when Maurice Cheeks is out of the game.

"Billy says he wants Andrew to run the team instead of shooting, but when Andrew doesn't shoot, Billy tells him, 'Shoot, shoot, shoot,' " Erving said. "He's confused about his role."

That seemed to be the case in Game 1 last Sunday, when Toney took only two shots in the first half, explaining later that he wanted to get the other players involved in the offense.

Cunningham told Toney at halftime not to forget about his own offense. He hasn't stopped shooting since, not even when he was bending the rim Tuesday night.

Cunningham's defenders counter that if Toney is so poorly coached, then explain the 43 points he scored in the last two games of the series against Milwaukee.

"Everybody goes through problems," Richardson said of Toney. "He's a human being like everyone else. We don't know what's bothering him. It could be a lot of things involved."

Richardson had other complaints with Cunningham, not the least of which was that the coach didn't discuss his thoughts about today's starting lineup with him or Toney before telling reporters.

"They haven't said anything," said Richardson, a five-year veteran from Seattle University. "But then again, they never say anything. They just do it."

It's a logical move. When Cunningham benched Toney for five games in March, Richardson started and played well. In a reserve role against Milwaukee, he shot 64.9% and averaged 13 points, scoring 22 in one game. He left the bench Tuesday night and played 30 minutes, making 7 of 12 shots and scoring 15 points.

But Richardson said he wants to earn a starting position because he's playing well, not because Toney lost it.

"Starting doesn't matter to me," he said. "That's just an ego thing. If I were worried about starting, I would have been out of here five years ago."

As it is, Richardson may be out of Philadelphia next season anyway. In the third year of a six-year contract that earns him $170,000 a year, Richardson wants to renegotiate. The 76ers are resisting.

Eastern Notes
After today's game, the teams will return to the Spectrum less than 24 hours later for Game 4. The Celtics figure that scheduling will be an advantage to them. "Bobby Jones has a bad knee and can't be effective back to back, and Doc (Julius Erving) can't play as many minutes as he used to," Larry Bird said. . . . The 76ers, on the other hand, believe that the Celtics will be at a disadvantage because of their limited depth. . . . In the first two games, 76er reserves have scored 48 points in 139 minutes. Celtic reserves have scored 19 points in 72 minutes. . . . The Celtics have lost eight of their last nine games in the Spectrum, including all three this season. Since the Larry Bird era began in 1979, the Celtics are 5-21 at Philadelphia. . . . During the same period, the 76ers are 8-23 in Boston, 0-5 this season. . .

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