Decades Later, Playoff Battle With Houston Still Stands Out
One of the great playoff series in 76ers history was the 1977 Eastern Conference Finals showdown with the Houston Rockets – the only time the two franchises have ever met in the playoffs.
(Yes, Houston was in the East back then.)
The 1976-77 season was the first following the NBA’s merger with the ABA. The regular season standings were tightly packed, as the league adjusted to the addition of so many new faces. Indeed, all but two teams in the 22-franchise league finished between 30 and 50 wins.
The Sixers led the East with 50 wins, while the Rockets were right behind them, with 49.
The Sixers were being hailed as the NBA’s glamor squad, thanks to a roster featuring All-Stars Julius Erving, George McGinnis, and Doug Collins.
Houston, meanwhile, was led by veteran scorers Rudy Tomjanovich and Calvin Murphy. The Rockets had wildcards, too - the moxie of rookie point guard John Lucas, and the ascent of third-year big man Moses Malone, who was still just 21 and playing power forward.
In Game 1 of the East Finals, the All-Star trio of Erving (24 points), Collins (23), and McGinnis (21) led a 128-117 Sixers win. World B. Free aided the effort with 18 points in 21 minutes off the bench.
Although beaten, the Rockets could note that Malone had burrowed his way to 32 points and 12 rebounds.
Game 2 was a bit closer, but still ended in a comfortable Sixers’ win, 106-97. The All-Star triad again showed well, combining for 59 points.
Down 2-0, Houston head coach Tom Nissalke knew that the Sixers could still hit another gear and quickly end the series:
“Philadelphia really hasn’t seen the true Dr. J. He’s playing at about 75 per cent of his capability. I watched him play four years in the American Basketball Association. I know.”
If Nissalke was preparing his squad for the worst, Doug Collins was assuming the best:
“Right now our thoughts are on a sweep. We’re trying to do it in four.”
Sixers head coach Gene Shue tried to put any talk of brooms back in the closet:
“A sweep? The only thing I’m worried about is the third game. You all know the respect I have for Houston. When they get hot I haven’t seen any team like them.”
Well, Coach Shue was right.
Houston blew the Sixers clean off the court in Game 3, a 118-94 drubbing. Malone was fully activated for the Rockets, going for 30 points and 25 rebounds. That rookie point guard Lucas water-bugged his way to 20 points and 9 assists, and Rudy T notched 24 points.
The Sixers regained their footing in Game 4 with a 107-95 win, but that final score belies the drama. Erving continued his superb series with 29 points, while Collins recovered from a woeful Game 3 to deliver 36.
The third quarter of Game 4 witnessed 11 lead changes, and the drama continued into the fourth. With the teams knotted at 78 apiece, Collins took over with 10 consecutive. The Sixers finally turned the seesaw match into a blowout.
Now up 3-games-to-1, and with Game 5 in Philadelphia, the Sixers were on the verge of making the Finals for the first time since 1967.
Unfortunately, Moses again rumbled all over the team. After a subpar Game 4, Malone smothered the Sixers with 17 points and 19 boards in Game 5.
Down 88-71 with 3:51 left in the third quarter, Houston methodically fought back by making 13 of its 20 shots in the fourth quarter. A turnaround jumper from Moses with 2:45 to go gave Houston a 108-107 lead, and the Rockets held on for a 118-115 victory after several key defensive and rebounding plays from Malone.
With World B. Free in the hospital with fractured ribs, and McGinnis playing through a groin injury, Nissalke’s omen that Julius Erving was only serving up 75 percent of his ability was indeed prophetic. Despite the Game 5 loss, Erving had scorched Houston for 37 points.
The Doctor delivered more of the same in Game 6 - 34 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists. Collins played the full 48 minutes and contributed 27 points. Darryl Dawkins had his best game of the series with 20 points and 7 rebounds. as starting center Caldwell Jones was hampered by foul trouble.
This game was no cakewalk, though.
Malone still controlled the middle with 17 points and 16 boards. Then there was Rockets center Kevin Kunnert, who had his finest game of the series with 21 points and 14 rebounds. The diminutive backcourt of Lucas and Murphy combined for 46 points.
Up 104-97 with 5:30 to play, the Sixers almost lost another game to the comeback Rockets, going scoreless for about three minutes. Houston reeled off eight unanswered points to take a 105-104 lead. Fortunately, the Doctor broke the drought by scoring four points in a row.
The zombie Rockets again seized the lead, 109-108, as Lucas and Mike Newlin each hit a basket.
Seeing extended minutes due to Free’s injury, Henry Bibby popped in a jump shot to pull the Sixers ahead, 110-109.
After a Sixers’ free throw, Houston had one last chance to steal a victory. John Lucas drove down the lane and made a lay up with five seconds left. The shot was nullified, however, as the referees called Lucas for an offensive foul.
After another made free throw, the Sixers finally pulled out the 112-109 win, and moved on to the Finals!
That’s where the 76ers and Rockets will have to meet should they ever play each other again in the post-season. We can only hope it’ll be as dramatic as that ’77 series.