January 18, 2013
HE WAS JUST what the good doctor ordered. A dead-eyed jump shooter, with the icy veins of a gunslinger, who could pass with the best of them and whose first step off the dribble was a killer.
Such was Andrew Toney. He always knew where the basket was, with sonar-like precision. The bigger the game, the bigger the performance. Once pumped in 46 against the Lakers, hitting on 21 of his 29 shots from the field in 35 minutes. And when it came to the Boston Celtics . . . let's face it, there were no bigger games. And Toney usually delivered.
"My first step out of the locker room, I was in range," Toney once said, "It was easy. I have no explanation for it. It was just easy for me to score at Boston Garden."
Toney did such damage to the Celtics that the Boston media dubbed him the Boston Strangler. The nickname stuck.
"You say that name to me and it messes up my day," former Celtic and obnoxious towel-waver M.L. Carr told the Boston Globe's Jackie MacMullan in 1991. "I still talk about him all the time. He was the best when it came to undressing a defensive player.
"There was only one way I ever found to stop him. You got him away from the ball, made sure no referee was looking, then laid a forearm to his face."
It's draft day 1980. The Sixers had just come off a six-game loss to the Magic Johnson-led Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. While Johnson and Jamaal Wilkes put on a performance for the ages in the series-clinching Game 6, watching the play of Henry Bibby and Lionel Hollins at two guard and seeing the oft-injured Doug Collins on the bench in street clothes, it was quite obvious the Sixers needed an upgrade.
So, with the eighth pick, acquired in a trade with Indiana, the Sixers took the sharp-shooting Toney from Southwest Louisiana State.
Toney spent his rookie season coming off the bench. But he was making a difference. He had some really good games that first year, but none came against the Celtics, at least during the regular season. In five games against the C's, Toney scored 55 points. But in the 1980-81 Eastern Conference finals against Boston, Toney scored 61 - in the first two games. The Sixers would go up 3-1 in the series. But with Toney scoring a total of 17 points in the last two games, which the Sixers lost by a total of three points, Boston completed another improbable comeback against the Sixers and advanced to the NBA Finals against the surprising Houston Rockets.
The next season, Toney had become a star and his performance and reputation for being a Celtic killer was increasing. In five regular-season games against the world champs, Toney shot 54.1 percent from the field, 88.9 percent from the line and torched them for 25.2 points a game. On March 21, 1982, Toney put up 38 on the Beantowners in just 26 minutes.
"To be honest," Toney said, "I haven't seen anyone in the game with the confidence I had. I had a really tough conscience. I would pull up and take the shot anytime, anywhere, in any situation. And you know what? They went in."
To no one's surprise, the Sixers and Celtics made it to the Eastern Conference finals. And again, the Sixers jumped out to a 3-1 series lead, taking three in a row after losing the opener. But in Games 5 and 6, Toney's game went south - maybe all the way back to Birmingham, Ala., his hometown - and the Sixers lost both games. He shot a combined 6-for-31 in the two games - including a nightmarish 1-for-11 performance in Game 6 in which he scored just three points - and the Sixers faced another Game 7 in Boston Garden.
The Sixers, aware of their history in Game 7s against the Celtics, especially in the Garden, were tense. But forward Steve Mix helped lighten things up by rumaging through a suitcase. When asked what he was looking for, Mix quipped, "Andrew's jump shot."
As for Toney, word was that he spent a sleepless night after Game 6.
"I couldn't sleep because I was so excited to get to Boston Garden," Toney said. "Everyone was talking about how it was do-or-die for us. Not me. I was thinking, 'Show and tell, Baby.' "
He showed them and he told them. He connected on 14 of 23 shots for 34 points, Larry Bird didn't score a point in the fourth quarter and the Sixers exorcised the ghosts of nightmares past with a 120-106 rout. And the Boston fans showed their class with chants of "Beat LA, beat LA."
In the three losses, Toney shot 27.9 percent while averaging 12 points. In the four wins, he shot 61.3 percent and scored 29.8 per. Sometimes numbers don't lie. And neither does a nickname.
"I was a road warrior," Toney said. "Lots of guys could step up at home, but very few could do it consistently in someone else's building. I was one of those players. If you needed something on the road, you came to me, and I delivered."