How high-flying 1983 Sixers beat Lakers at their own game in NBA Finals


It’s no great revelation to say that the NBA was much different the last time the Sixers won a championship. The shorts were shorter and the three-point shot was more of a novelty than an emphasis.

We watched Game 1 of the 1983 NBA Finals, a 113-107 Sixers win over the Lakers, to get a better sense of both what’s changed about the sport and the characters on that championship team. Game 2 will air Saturday night on NBC Sports Philadelphia, while Games 3 and 4 will air Sunday.

The Sixers managed to sweep the Lakers despite attempting two three-pointers all series and making none. In the 2019 NBA Finals, the Raptors made 72 threes. 

We’ll start off by looking at a Moses Malone post-up that is almost nothing like a Joel Embiid post-up. 

The first noticeable difference is there are no players outside of the three-point arc. And instead of cutting away from the action after making the entry pass, as a player usually would in the modern NBA, Clint Richardson sprints right through the middle of the lane. That invites an all-out double team, something Malone saw plenty of in this game. In this era of more stringent illegal defense rules, teams had to send double teams decisively because shading help in the direction of the man posting up often wasn’t legal. With the paint full of bodies and no teammates open, Malone simply powers through Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper. 

This next play features Andrew Toney running the point after Maurice Cheeks encountered early foul trouble. He curls around a pin down screen from Clemon Johnson and scores.

In 2020, Toney would probably be running a long loop around Johnson’s screen and catching the ball behind the arc. While such an action would obviously give Toney the chance to add an extra point, it’s interesting to see how the tighter spacing allows for these kind of sharp shifts in direction to be more effective.

Against a scorer of Toney’s caliber, Norm Nixon has no room for error in how he guards the pin down. When he falls behind the play and has to chase Toney, “The Boston Strangler” can create an easy jumper with a quick fake and dribble toward the baseline. 

While the ’82-83 Sixers could score at a high rate working around Malone in the half court, they were very successful this game in the open floor. Malone was the NBA’s leading rebounder and always ready to start a fast break, and Julius Erving required attention from opposing defenses. They beat the “Showtime” Lakers at their own game.

There were a few stretches of lax defense in Game 1, but the Sixers’ ability to guard the paint jumped out. The concept of a single “rim protector” is fashionable today, but this Sixers team had a handful of players who deterred and blocked shots. Malone picks up two blocks here after the Sixers make a mistake in covering the Nixon-Mark Landsberger pick-and-roll on the right wing, but Erving and Bobby Jones are also ready to joust at the rim. They were overeager on this sequence, leaping in the air on pump fakes, but you can see how many weapons the Sixers had with their interior defense. 

Erving was especially excellent as a shot blocker in this series. He rejected five shots in Game 1 and 11 across the four games, the most of any player. With ease and grace, he chewed up ground — Magic Johnson thought he had an open layup here.

In contrast, Kurt Rambis seemed aware that Erving was around, but Dr. J gobbled up his attempt anyway.  

As is often the case in a playoff series between two rivals, the Lakers frequently appeared to know the Sixers’ plan on offense. The Sixers’ fluid improvisations in response were impressive. 

In the first clip below, Erving slides back door when Johnson fronts him. On the next play, the initial action of Richardson coming up from the left block to the elbow to screen for Malone is rebuffed. The Sixers stay patient, find a good passing angle and let the MVP seal off Landsberger. 

We’ll end with a play that’s a ton of fun to watch, however many times you rewind it.

On first viewing, it’s a high-flying dunk by Erving. Watch it again, though, and you’ll appreciate Cheeks bringing the ball forward with a purpose, constantly looking for a free teammate. You’ll see Abdul-Jabbar lumber out toward Erving, clearly hopeless as the Hall of Fame forward accelerates toward the rim and glides into his dunk over Johnson. And as the referee puts his hands out in a gesture of “Nothing wrong with that,” you’ll notice Erving drop down to the floor from Johnson’s grasp and give the Lakers point guard a quiet pat before running back down the floor. He didn’t need to say anything. 

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