The Los Angeles Lakers fast-broke Phoenix in four straight, then San Antonio in four more and, finally, Philadelphia in six. "They may be the best team the league has ever seen," said Spurs Coach Stan Albeck. "They're never satisfied with the jump shot off the break. They keep going until they get a layup." Indeed, never had the NBA playoff action been so dominated by one team's running game, and rarely had one man, Jamaal Wilkes (straining for a rebound at right), better typified a champion's season—one of early adversity and ultimate satisfaction. After a poor start and the sudden death of his 8-day-old daughter, Wilkes was pondering retirement. But he and his teammates survived despite a series of player ultimatums and the convulsion of Coach Paul Westhead's early season dismissal. Magic Johnson took heat for his role in that firing, then turned in a hot MVP performance in the playoffs, Westhead's replacement, Pat Riley, laid the trap defense that frustrated each opponent. A bolt named Norm Nixon paced the break, and Bob McAdoo refused to be kicked around anymore. Mac came off the bench to spice the offense and finally get his championship doo. And one legend, L.A.'s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, outdid another, Philly's Julius Erving. In the end, The Doctor, when asked to describe the Lakers' breakers, utilized the Southern California idiom. "Awesome," was all that he could say.
New Jersey's Buck Williams was Rookie of the Year in one poll, Detroit's Isiah Thomas won another—and many felt Thomas' teammate, Kelly Tripucka, should have won both. Yet some of the best newcomers weren't in the '81 draft: They were cast-offs and retreads. For most of the season the Lakers started Kurt Rambis, whose only previous pro experience had been in Greece. McAdoo and Washington's Spencer Haywood, whose reps had taken plenty of raps, helped their clubs to the playoffs. And both San Diego and Milwaukee, their rosters depleted by injuries, signed on temps. The Clippers went white-collar, picking up Rock Lee, an engineer with General Dynamics; the Bucks blue-collar, plucking Kevin Stacom from the Newport, R.I. saloon where he was tending bar. Each had a cup of coffee.
Dr. J managed a leg up on the Celtics, but he couldn't hurdle the Lakers.
Los Angeles prospered under Nixon's administration (above); Sidney Moncrief was No. 1 for Milwaukee in scoring, rebounds and assists.
Darryl Dawkins, the 76er and sometime resident of Lovetron, left Abdul-Jabbar goggle-eyed here. But he often seemed to be on Ambivaletron.
After hitting the double figures in rebounds, assists and steals in 18 games, playoff MVP Johnson wrought a new stat, the "triple double."
Moses Malone, the league MVP, fled Houston for Philly's $13.2 million.
George (Ice) Gervin, the Spur of the moment, led NBA scorers.
Chief Celtic center was Robert Parish (19.9 ppg). The Bullets' European imports, Haywood and Jeff Ruland, nearly nicked Boston in a mini-series.
IT WAS A TWO-PIECE LEAGUE
The good? They were very, very good. As for the bad...well, they were horrid. The shortsighted and/or spendthrift managements in Cleveland, San Diego and Utah blundered their way to just 57 wins combined. (That's the same number of regular-season games won by the Lakers, who in this parody of parity somehow still ended up with the first pick in the draft.) In 1970-71, as an expansion team, the Cavaliers won 15 games. Eleven years later, as candidates for a contraction team, they won 15 games. Stabler and much abler, the Boston Celtics won at least 60—and the Atlantic Division title—for the third straight year, thanks to an 18-game streak late in the season begun in Larry Bird's and Tiny Archibald's absence. The Denver Nuggets, while setting a record for most points scored, set another for most allowed. San Antonio's George Gervin, the league's scoring leader, and Houston's Moses Malone, the rebounding champ, MVP and $13.2 million 76er-to-be, led their teams to the playoffs.
If not for Moncrief, the Milwaukee Bucks wouldn't have won 55 games and the Central Division crown. At 6'4", he topped the injury-plagued Bucks in-good 'crief!—scoring, rebounding and assists. Seattle's Gus Williams, idle the previous season because he didn't like the numbers on his contract, accounted for 23.4 points a game and was named Comeback Player of the Year. And two teams in the Atlantic proved precocious. Washington and New Jersey were taken lightly in preseason polls, but each made the playoffs with Clearasil nuclei and Geritol fill-ins.
The 76ers, scorned in their own town, dispatched Boston in its hallowed Garden in the Eastern Conference finals after squandering a 3-1 lead in games. Philly's Andrew Toney plagued the Celts all series long with a chest-first jump shot that one observer said looked like a hood ornament. Even tonier was The Doctor. Two weeks after being turned away again in his quest for a title, there was Erving, narrating Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf with a Philadelphia orchestra, for a bunch of kids.
Indiana could muster only 7,800 fans a game despite double-posting Loni Anderson low.