The 76ers visited the old neighborhood yesterday, the segment of the basketball world in which they developed their style, built their record and established their reputation.
It looked terrific, felt better. The open court is where they grew up, where they discovered remarkable things about themselves.
It is where they are at their best, an ocean of talent pouring toward a distant shore.
Heaven, as they say, can wait.
"Get the first one, then you need three more, then it's over," Moses Malone was saying after the Sixers stung the Los Angeles Lakers, 113-107, in the opener of their third best-of-seven NBA championship series in four seasons.
It hardly was unusual for the Sixers - who swept to a league-high 65 victories during the regular season - to win three times in a 10-day span. Now they need three wins to secure their first championship since 1966-67, and the horizon has refused to come into sharper focus.
"Three more seems like a long way off," said Malone, who contributed game-highs of 27 points and 18 rebounds, sweeping more rebounds than in any of the previous nine games against New York and Milwaukee. "It's gonna be tough, too. It seems like three more miles we gotta go. But if we get one Thursday (Game 2), it might be a little more easy."
Not even the explanations were easy yesterday. The Lakers didn't win the Western Conference title until late Friday night, arrived at their Center City hotel headquarters Saturday and stepped directly into the next level of the cauldron.
"I'm not gonna get into that issue," Lakers coach Pat Riley said, "but . . .
"When two teams play for eight months and bust their tails for eight months, and give three-quarters of their life to the league, and then the league asks them to give their very best at the end, they should give them the benefit of the doubt by letting them adjust their schedule. They should say, 'We got to give teams at least three days to get their thing together. ' I think that would be the fairest."
Riley wasn't rebelling, merely philosophizing. He knows his team had 11 days off before beginning the finals last season, and he hasn't forgotten the agony of the Sixers winning the sixth game of the quarterfinals in Milwaukee, flying to Boston the next day and losing the opener of the semifinals by 40 points.
And he also knows he has lots of time now to prepare for Thursday night's game in the Spectrum, time to check the medical reports on Norman Nixon (taken to Methodist Hospital for X-rays of his shoulder), Michael Cooper (who played with bruised ribs) and Bob McAdoo (who didn't play at all with a pulled muscle in his thigh).
"We've been in their situation," Sixer coach Billy Cunningham said. ''You've got to live with it, do your job. You really have no other recourse."
What the Sixers showed yesterday is that they are more difficult than ever to prepare for. They now have the versatility, flexibility and depth that always have been the Lakers' trump cards.
Malone had big numbers, but - relatively speaking - who didn't?
Andrew Toney survived an early crunching collision with Nixon to score 25 points, and Julius Erving flared in every conceivable direction to accumulate 20 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, five blocks and only one turnover in 39 minutes. Bobby Jones arrived thinner and paler than ever because of a throat infection, but still sprinkled four points, five assists, four rebounds and four blocks across 28 minutes.
And when Bobby rested, starting forward Marc Iavaroni etched in a workmanlike six points and seven rebounds, absorbing his share of the contact, but avoiding foul trouble. Clint Richardson packed all 15 of his points into the second half, managing a game-high four steals, and Clemon Johnson hurled in a critical 14-footer in the final three minutes.
The open court is the Sixers' high road. They rediscovered that after the Lakers stormed through a 37-point second period, building a three-point advantage.
After intermission, the Sixers shot a heat-seeking 26-for-43, thumped LA, 26-16, off the boards, and added 14 assists. That was the highway CBS had envisioned for its showcase, rather than the grinding pace the Knicks had offered, or the snarling traffic the Bucks had created.
"For both teams," Cunningham said, "this is closer to the style we both like. These two are the best running teams in the game."
By the end of the day, the Sixers and Lakers had used 61 fast breaks to generate 59 points, but turned the ball over just 29 times. Nixon pulled the trigger 23 times, primarily on medium-range jumpers, and led his team with 26 points. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar added 20, but was able to counter Malone with only four rebounds, one off the offensive boards. Magic Johnson strung together 19 points, nine rebounds and 11 assists, but - for the first time in his career - did not come away a winner in the road opener of a best-of-seven playoff series.
The Lakers came in weary and wary, and still were scary. They used some thinly disguised zone principles to help Abdul-Jabbar and doggedly surrounded Malone, trying to force the ball in other directions.
"I looked for Kareem," Malone said. "I expected to see him, but sometimes I was seeing two other guys, too. Sometimes I just had nowhere to go."
The Lakers don't have anywhere to go now until Thursday, other than back to the drawing board.
"We're going to the post," Riley said. "I'm going to play Buck (Magic) 48 minutes, Michael Cooper 96 minutes. There's nothing (else) you can do. There are two weeks left in the season.
"This is the ultimate fantasy. We're going to be tested as the defending champions to the hilt. But we came here to play, we want to win the title. Come Thursday, you'll see a different club. We'll be prepared. All we want
from here is a split, and we will get it."
The Sixers blasted out of the starting gate, staggered in the second period, then located some familiar gears.
"Our team," Erving said, "is dedicated to not being distracted, dedicated to winning. Keep it simple.
"We knew what LA was gonna come in with, and we decided to fight fire with fire. We fell into a little trap with Milwaukee, and we learned from that. We don't want to play a style where we throw it into Moses and see three guys collapse on him.
"The first half, the ball wasn't going in too frequently for us (19-for- 53). It was far from a perfect game from Julius individually and both teams collectively, but it was a great game. When you accomplish what you set out to do, the other stuff is secondary."
The Sixers lost to the Lakers in six games in 1980, when Magic replaced Abdul-Jabbar in the middle. They lost in six last year, when they dropped the opener and the home-court advantage that would have brought the seventh game back to Philadelphia.
"What we have now," Mo Cheeks said, "is a desire to win it all. It's a desire we had the last two times also, but now we have a certain confidence that we can do it.
"To win the first one is a confidence-builder, but not that big a deal. It means we're 1-up, but it wasn't an easy one. We have to take it, keep it, come out stronger the next time. There won't be an easy game in this series."
Jet lag? Clemon Johnson wondered if the Lakers had used it as a rallying point.
"Even if they were tired, they didn't want us to blow them out, and that made it tougher for us to beat them at all," he said. "You can usually tell when the players are fatigued. You see certain signs. But today, you'd see the signs, then they'd reach down, find some more to work with.
"We played strong enough to win, but we didn't play to our peak. If we do, hopefully we can eliminate the necessity for a seventh game. Or even a sixth."
They survived a 19-11 Lakers surge down the stretch that became dangerous when - protecting a four-point lead - Cheeks committed a turnover with 21 seconds remaining, and Bobby Jones missed two free throws at 0:09.
But Bobby rebounded Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook at 0:16, and Malone clutched Cooper's missed three-pointer at 0:03.
"There's something special about this team," Erving said. "We've accepted the challenge of having to prove ourselves every time we step on the court. We seemingly get better every game."
They left the signature they treasure the most on this one. They won on the open court, using balance rather than heroics, solid principles rather than flamboyance.
They won on their own turf, in their own way.