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Nets in the 80s: An Upset for the Ages in 1984

The defending champ Sixers had been to three NBA Finals in four years before the Nets knocked them off

Don’t bother making the trip.

Just mail the stat sheet in.

That was the message from a Nets legend to his former team on the eve of the decisive Game 5 of the first round of the NBA Playoffs in 1984.

Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers were the defending NBA champions, but they’d been pushed to the limit by the upstart Nets, with each team winning two of the first four games on the other team’s home court. But there was no way, Erving said, that the Nets were going to win in Philly for the third time in the series.

“That gave us the motivation to win that series,” said Buck Williams. “We felt disrespected when Dr. J said that. We controlled the tempo of the game. Philly didn’t have the legs to run with us. That recipe really worked for us. It was a track meet and they could not outrun us in a track meet.”

“We went there and let them have it,” said Otis Birdsong.

The Nets beat the Sixers at the Spectrum in Game 5, 101-98, for the franchise’s first NBA playoff series win — and the only one until the 2001-02 team made its run to the NBA Finals.

“First of all, no one gave us a chance,” said Birdsong. “We might have been the eighth seed or the seventh seed. We go to Philly and win the first two games, which is shocking, Earth-shattering. Even the Jersey fans were shocked. We matched up so well with them. Albert (King) and Mike O’Koren did so well against Julius. Andrew (Toney) and I offset each other. Micheal Ray (Richardson) got the best of (Maurice) Cheeks and Darryl (Dawkins) played great and held his own against Moses (Malone). We always played well against them.”

“That was a great experience,” said Albert King. “You were going up against the NBA champions. No one gave you a chance when you were starting on their court. We were a young team that loved to run. Stan Albeck came in from San Antonio with the mindset to run, run, run. We surprised them in the first game; we might have surprised ourselves. The second game we won that was a great bus ride home. Philly came back strong on our home court and beat us.

“We were not nervous when we went out there. We felt we could win the basketball game. We played the defense we needed to play and we were running and we tired them out, and we thought we won the NBA championship.”

The Nets had finished the regular season with a 45-37 record in fourth place in the Atlantic Division. Birdsong led them with 19.8 points per game and Williams averaged 15.7 points and 12.3 rebounds. Dawkins, in his second season with the team after being acquired from Philadelphia, averaged 16.8 points and shot 59.3 percent. Richardson was acquired from Golden State in February. After Larry Brown’s departure near the end of the 1982-83 season, Stan Albeck had taken over as head coach after leading San Antonio to 53 wins the year before.

“Stan Albeck was the coach,” said O’Koren. “Very good coach. Knew the game, but more of a roll-it-out type. We want these guys to play; if you have a shot you like, you take it. Larry was more hands-on, control the play. Stan was like, go ahead and make the play. We make the playoffs again. First round was best-of-five. The way the game goes, we won two games down in Philly, they won two games in the Meadowlands, and we go to Philly and shock the NBA. Game 5 on the road against the defending champions. No small feat at all. The biggest thing that happened to that group.”

Making their third straight playoff appearance, Nets had won the first two games of the series by nearly identical scores, 116-101 followed by 116-102. In the opener, Buck Williams had 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting with 16 rebounds and Birdsong had 24 points. Game 2 belonged to Richardson, with 32 points, nine assists, seven rebounds and four steals.

Back home with an eye on closing out the champs, the Nets watched the Sixers get a free dose of motivation during Game 3.

“We were up in the third quarter and our mascot Duncan took a broom over in front of Philly’s bench during a timeout and started sweeping up around the bench and I wanted to go over and strangle him,” said Mike Gminski. “Of course, it woke everybody up on their team and they came back and beat us.”

“The mascot comes out with the broom,” said Birdsong. “I’m like, hell no. Doc and those guys saw the broom and they went on a big run and beat us. Not the broom. Bring out the broom when it’s fourth quarter, one second on the clock. Fourth game, same thing they come in there and take it to us.”

After the Nets dropped both games at the Meadowlands, they went back to the Spectrum and finished the job, advancing to the second round, where they lost to Milwaukee in six games. In the decisive win, Williams had 17 points and 16 rebounds while Birdsong scored 24 points with six assists and six steals.

Richardson put the finishing touches on a masterpiece series with 24 points, six assists, six rebounds and six steals, playing 47 minutes. For the series, he averaged 20.6 points, 8.6 assists and 4.2 steals.

“The best player on the floor, and that’s saying something with Dr. J and Moses and Andrew Toney and the guys Philly had; Maurice Cheeks,” said O’Koren. “When he was right, it was as good as it gets; a 6-5 guy, could shoot it, handle it, pass it, he could do everything on the floor.”

The next season was Richardson’s best as a Net, and his last full season in the league before he was suspended for drug usage. He went to the All-Star Game and averaged 20.1 points, 8.2 assists, 5.6 rebounds and a league-leading 3.0 steals while starting all 82 games and averaging 38.1 minutes per game.

“One of the best point guards I ever played with,” said Williams. “He made me a better player. He intimidated opposing guards. Before the game he would go on to the other teams opposing power forward, every night he would go down there and start ripping the other power forwards telling them what I’m going to do to them. He had the whole package. He was a little Magic Johnson; I think that’s a good comparison. He went off the rails a little bit but he was one of the best players I ever played with.”

NEXT: MIKE GMINSKI & MIKE O'KOREN

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