Although it seems ridiculous today, at the beginning of the 80s, the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets were based in the Eastern Conference. At the time, both were your run-of-the-mill outfits. Average at 41-41. But there was some transcendent talent on each side.
In San Antonio, there was George Gervin, possessor of the greatest finger roll since Wilt Chamberlain and effectively the first great, big guard (at 6-8). Gervin was the best one on one player in the league(besides Julius Erving), and he was a much better defender than history gives him credit for. Why the oversight? In a word, the ABA. Gervin’s one on one ability was both admired and resented, and he lacked the crossover appeal of the superstars to come. But he was unstoppable, and for his trouble, he averaged 33.1 points in Doug Moe’s free-flowing, up-tempo offense.
In Houston? Well, they had their own ABAer, reigning MVP Moses Malone. Although history looks the other way, Moses was, in fact, the first(and most frequent) ABAer to capture the top award(1979, 82, 83), but history has overlooked him as well. Why? Well, Moses was quintessentially 70s and 80s, and his relentless style was impressive but not enduring.
In addition, he played before expansion robbed the best run teams in the league of the ability to stockpile talent. Thus he had little to no incentive to improve on other elements of his game(“I don’t get paid to pass,” he infamously told Houston assistant Carroll Dawson), like passing and defense that would have prolonged his effectiveness.
Thus, many fans tend to remember him more for his journeyman days (starting with Atlanta) than his MVP days.
Yet, Moses was effectively the last Center who was the marquee player in the league in his prime(save for Shaquille O’Neal and, to some extent Hakeem Olajuwon).
So on this day in 1980, these two teams squared off in a series that would determine who would face Larry Birds Boston Celtics, in the midst of a remarkable turnaround.
This was not just a contrast of cities; they were also a contrast of styles. Led by Moe, the Spurs were a fast-breaking, up-tempo squad. Houston, led by Delmar Harris(himself an ABAer), was a walk-it-up team built around the talents of Malone. But, for this day, the Houston style would prevail.
In this game, both superstars would(for them) play subpar games.
Gervin would get 19 points, while Moses would have a pedestrian 10 with 14 boards.
However, Houston had sharpshooter Calvin Murphy who buried San Antonio with 28 points, and Houston took the opening game 95-85.
The 85 points are shockingly low for a Moe-coached team, and one can imagine he vowed his squad would score more in the next game.
Not to spoil it, but both of these teams would make some major noise in the years to come.
In addition, the style that both teams played would be replicated at the highest level(i.e., the NBA Finals) for the entire decade.