Andrew Toney

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

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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The greatness and reclusiveness of Andrew Toney

The greatness and reclusiveness of Andrew Toney

Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got all the headlines for the “Showtime” Lakers, but Michael Cooper was their defensive stalwart. An eight-time All-Defensive Team pick, he was to L.A. what Bobby Jones was to the Sixers.

Most opponents wanted no part of Cooper. Andrew Toney wasn’t most players.

On March 7, 1982, in a game that featured six Hall of Famers, Toney owned the Spectrum floor.

“I always remember them saying Michael Cooper was a defensive specialist,” former Sixer Earl Cureton told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Marc Zumoff. “Andrew used to ask me, what was that. They say they got a guy that’s a stopper. And he went out on national TV and scored 46 on him one night. After the game he said, ‘Who’s the guy that’s supposed to be the defensive specialist? Who was he?’”

Toney was fearless. He didn’t sweat his opponents, even if they were All-Stars or Hall of Famers. He wasn’t afraid to give it to his teammates in practice or defy his head coach from time to time.

While we reflect back on the greatness of the last Sixers team to capture a championship, it’s impossible not to think about Toney and the complicated legacy and relationship he has with Philadelphia.

To hear those that saw Toney at the peak of his powers, he was almost a mythical figure — and was on a path to something special.

‘Andrew!’

The eighth overall pick in 1980 out of Louisiana-Lafayette, Toney joined a team that was loaded with talent and coming off a loss in the Finals to the Lakers.

He was about to share the practice floor with larger-than-life figures like Julius Erving and Darryl Dawkins. That didn’t phase the rookie one bit.

“The initial day at practice over at Widener [University],” Erving said to Zumoff, “he literally came over half court — about four feet past the half court line — and he pulled up and shot a jump shot. Everybody in the gym was just like, ‘Woah.’ And [head coach] Billy [Cunningham] was saying, ‘Andrew!’ and we heard that all six years that we were together.”

That fearless approach may have caused his head coach to yell his name from time to time, but Cunningham gladly took the trade off because of how special Toney was on the court.

“I remember a game, we’re playing the Lakers during the season,” Cunningham said to Zumoff, “in the Spectrum, I think it’s overtime. I call a play to inbound the ball to Maurice Cheeks and then get the ball to Andrew. Andrew just kinda runs and grabs the ball. …

“I’m going, ‘Andrew!’ and he just kind of waves me off. He takes the ball, and two or three Lakers come at him and he shoots the ball over them, banks it in and there I am as the coach, saying, ‘What are you gonna do?’”

Unlike the understated Erving or Cheeks, Toney was brash. With the equal amounts of fear and respect he garnered, he seemed to have a right to be.

‘He definitely had a Hall of Fame career’

The 1982-83 Sixers were loaded. They featured four Hall of Famers — Erving, Moses Malone, Cheeks and Jones. They were led by a Hall of Fame player and coach in Cunningham.

But ask anyone around that time and they have to bring up the name Andrew Toney. “The Boston Strangler” was a two-time All-Star in his own right. 

“Hall of Fame. There’s no question about it,” Cunningham said.

“He definitely had a Hall of Fame career,” Erving said.

“He’d have been a Hall of Famer. Hands down,” Cureton said.

Charles Barkley on more than one occasion has said Toney is the best player he ever played with. Larry Bird said Toney “was one of the best guys I ever played against.

Unfortunately, during the 1984-85 season, Toney began experiencing pain in his feet. This led to conflict with then-Sixers owner Harold Katz, who questioned whether Toney was actually hurt. The team had just awarded Toney with a lucrative contract after his second straight All-Star season in 1983-84.

After an ugly public dispute, it was found that Toney had stress fractures in the navicular bones in both his feet. He played just 87 games his last three seasons.

And just like that, a career that seemed destined to end with Hall of Fame enshrinement ended not long after his 30th birthday.

“I remember Andrew telling me after he [retired],” Cunningham said, “and he’s down in Atlanta and he went to a YMCA or some place to play a little pick-up basketball, and he couldn’t walk after trying to play. He was in such pain with his feet.”

If not for the injuries, there seems to be a consensus from those that watched Toney closely that he’d be right there with his enshrined teammates from 1982-83.

“Andrew dominated,” Cureton said. “If no injuries or nothing happened to him, he was going to be a Hall of Famer. Look where everybody [from that team] is at. Bobby’s in the Hall of Fame, Moses in the Hall of Fame, Doc in the Hall of Fame, Maurice just went into the Hall of Fame. Andrew Toney, rightfully, should be right there with them.”

Giving Toney his due

These days, Toney lives down in Atlanta. Erving also lives in the area and the two play golf from time to time. Erving said Toney takes his golf game just as seriously as he once did his game on the court.

During the 1982-83 season, Erving was 32 years old and still looking for his first NBA championship after capturing two titles in the ABA. He wasn’t in his prime but was still a star. As the playoffs came around, Erving took on a lesser offensive role.

While Malone, who was the league’s MVP for a second straight season, was the focal point, Toney was just as important to the team’s offense.

“[In the Finals against L.A.], it was Moses inside, Andrew outside,” Erving said. “You look at the footage of those plays, we were probably calling as many plays for him as we did for Moses. ... You could never tell how many plays were called for him based on his statistics because he just created his own statistics. Coming down and trying to set something up you’re always looking for some type of advantage, and Andrew was the main guy in that regard.”

Though Toney had bravado — and the scoring ability to back it up — he was by no means a selfish player. He wanted to win.

And he proved that, often taking a backseat to other stars on the team and backing up Cheeks as the team’s point guard throughout their time together.

“He just had unlimited abilities,” Cunningham said. “Of all the players on that team, Andrew Toney sacrificed more than anyone. Winning was the most important thing to him so therefore he would do whatever was necessary.”

But what about his relationship with the organization?

Toney and Katz have made up after all these years. Toney was even at a game a few years ago when the Sixers were celebrating the anniversary of the 1982-83 team — though he didn’t speak to reporters or take part in a pregame ceremony.

“Andrew was a tremendous player,” former Sixer Clint Richardson told Zumoff, “and I’m just praying that at some point Andrew will get his recognition in the organization that he deserves. I’m not sure how it’s going to happen. 

“I’m trying to facilitate some things with him, but he definitely needs to be recognized as one of the top players in the Sixers organization. I think it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of the right time and the right connection with Andrew and him feeling comfortable. I think it’s gonna happen.”

Should No. 22 hang in the rafters at the Wells Fargo Center next to Nos. 2, 6, 10 and 24? Maybe then we’d get to see “The Boston Strangler” ring the bell before a key matchup against the Celtics.

If you ask those that watched him play, the answer would seem to be yes.

For those of us that didn’t, he still feels like a mythical character.

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Ranking the 10 most important members of the 1982-83 Sixers

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AP Images/Getty Images/USA Today Images

Ranking the 10 most important members of the 1982-83 Sixers

Thirty-seven years ago, the Sixers had a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals and were two wins in Los Angeles away from a championship. 

NBC Sports Philadelphia will be re-airing that series this weekend, showing Game 1 on Friday night, Game 2 Saturday and Games 3 and 4 Sunday. 

We’ll have stories to come on that team, which won 65 games in the regular season and came one game away from a perfect postseason. We begin today with a ranking of the 1982-83 Sixers’ 10 most important members. 

10. Earl Cureton 
Cureton didn’t play heavy minutes in 1982-83 as a backup to league MVP Moses Malone. In the playoffs, he played even less. But he did step up in a big spot when the Sixers needed him. With Malone in foul trouble in Game 2, Cureton was forced into action. Though it doesn’t look like much on a score sheet, he got the Sixers through 17 minutes without Malone that night in a 103-93 win.

9. Clemon Johnson 
The Sixers picked up Johnson in a February trade with the Pacers, and he was a solid backup big man. Malone had played a league-high 42 minutes per game the previous season with the Rockets, but he was able to average "only" 36.6 minutes after Johnson’s arrival and be sharp for the playoffs. 

8. Marc Iavaroni 
Bobby Jones may have been the Hall of Famer, but it was Iavoroni who actually started in 1982-83. The 26-year-old rookie had just finished four years playing overseas after his college career ended. On a team loaded with All-Stars, Iavoroni was a glue guy. He wasn’t afraid to get physical and do the little things his team needed. While the stats won’t wow you, make no mistake, Iavoroni was a big part of that championship run.

7. Clint Richardson 
Richardson was valuable as the team’s primary guard off the bench. He stepped up in the Sixers’ Game 1 Finals win when Maurice Cheeks got into foul trouble, playing 31 minutes and recording 15 points, four steals and three assists. 

6. Billy Cunningham 
You have to show some love for the man running the show. Though 1982-83 was Cunningham’s only title with the team, he’s easily the best coach in Sixers history. He coached and won more games and has the highest winning percentage and most playoff wins of any coach in franchise history. Cunningham was also a Hall of Fame player for the Sixers, helping capture a title in 1966-67.

5. Bobby Jones 
“The Secretary of Defense” earned the NBA’s inaugural Sixth Man of the Year award in 1983 after starting 73 games in 1981-82. As always, he was one of the league’s better defenders and finished the season third in defensive box plus-minus. Jones had 13 points on 6 for 7 shooting, four steals and two blocks in the Finals clincher. 

4. Andrew Toney 
While Toney is often looked at as a “what if” story, the healthy version of the guard was a crucial part of the 1982-83 team. He made the first of his two All-Star teams that season, averaging 19.7 points and 4.5 assists a game. He was just as critical in the playoffs, averaging 22.1 points in the Eastern Conference and NBA Finals. “The Boston Strangler” appeared to be destined for the Hall of Fame before serious foot issues derailed his career.

3. Maurice Cheeks 
Cheeks made his first of four career All-Star Games in 1982-1983, and it was a well-deserved selection. He was a reliable presence, starting 79 regular-season games and all 13 playoff contests, and an excellent defender and distributor. Cheeks posted 12.5 points, 6.9 assists and 2.3 steals per game. Most importantly, he got the stars the ball when and where they needed it and conducted the team with ample poise and intelligence. 

2. Julius Erving 
For most of his Sixers career, Dr. J would probably be No. 1 on a list like this. Though he wasn’t quite at the peak of his powers at age 32, Erving was still an unreal athlete and an All-Star. He averaged 21.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.6 steals in the regular season. While his scoring numbers were down slightly during the playoff run, his defense was on another level. He averaged 2.1 blocks a game that postseason, including 11 in four NBA Finals games. Erving needed a boost from Malone to get him over the top, but it was still a 1 and 1A type of situation with the pair of Hall of Famers.

1. Moses Malone 
It’s difficult to exaggerate how good Malone was in his prime. After being traded from Houston to Philadelphia, he won a second consecutive MVP award, led the league in rebounding for a third straight season and helped the Sixers finally overcome the Lakers. He also was a clear choice for Finals MVP, averaging 25.8 points and 18 rebounds in the series. Even if the Sixers didn't pull it off, fans will always remember his bold "fo', fo' fo'" prediction and how he nearly backed it up with his play. GM Pat Williams' deal to add Malone is one of the best trades in Sixers history, and the 1986 trade that sent him to the Bullets is one of the worst

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