Opportunity has been limited for Malone in recent weeks, but coach Fred Carter had a feeling about this one. He made Malone the first center off the bench against Milwaukee, where Malone had played the previous two seasons before being dismissed.
"All-pro, all-pro, all-pro," Carter said after the game, when Malone had completed his night of work, which included 18 points and 12 rebounds in just 19 minutes. "Scoring, rebounding and defense."
This was not just another game for the Sixers, who might have teetered on the brink of retiring for a while after coughing up a terrible home loss to Sacramento the night before. They needed what Carter called a "character game," and found it against the Bucks, who fell to 4-15 and solidified their standing as the worst team in the Eastern Conference.
"This is something we have to develop, coming back after a tough loss," said Orlando Woolridge, who was the Bucks' final cut in training camp and enjoyed his 15-point, eight-rebound effort last night. "You have to be prepared to play no matter what. We lost a tough one at home, flew last night, got up, had shoot-around, and had to play. That's not easy, but we were able to just get on the court and put it behind us."
Carter emphasized that the Sixers had to close off the inside to the Bucks on defense and then rebound the basketball. Milwaukee is the worst-shooting team in the league. Kept on the perimeter last night, the Bucks made just 41 percent of their tries, and the Sixers pulled in 36 of their 47 rebounds on the defensive end.
When the Sixers made their first move in the game, it was Malone at the throttle. He replaced Shawn Bradley, who had gotten into early foul trouble, and the Sixers broke open an even game to lead by eight points early in the second quarter. Malone had 10 points and six rebounds in that 10-minute stint. His second rebound was the 16,000th of his NBA career, putting him in the select company of Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elvin Hayes.
Late in the game, after the Sixers had built a 20-point fourth-quarter lead, the Bucks made a run at them. They specifically made a run at Bradley, and Carter brought Malone in for some stability. Malone played until the game was put away, working the inside as he has done for two decades.
"I figure I already had 16,000, but they just ain't given me my ABA rebounds yet," said Malone, who had 1,622 rebounds in two seasons with the defunct American Basketball Association. "How many more can I get? Well, I can't get another 16,000, I know that. The main thing is that I still come to play and come to win. I want to still help the team when I get the opportunity to play."
Malone has acted somewhat as an elder statesman for Bradley this season, leading him at least by example in practice and during games, if not by the Arthur Murray style of instruction. Maybe it's Malone's influence, but Bradley has been playing with more tenacity lately, trading shoves with opponents and taking offense when he is pushed out of position.
He got into it with Frank Brickowski of Milwaukee last night and picked up a couple of fouls he should have avoided. But Malone likes what he sees in the progress of Bradley, who had eight points and six rebounds in 20 minutes.
"Shawn's developing," Malone said. "He's getting that attitude. He's getting aggressive and not backing away too much. He's going to be a player. You have to understand that as the No. 2 pick in the draft there's a lot put on him. You can't put pressure on a guy like that and let him develop. He's a great athlete and he's going to be around a long time."
But not as long as Moses.
"Hey, if I'm still playing when I'm 38, that will be a miracle," Bradley said. "You've just got to have a great deal of admiration for that guy. He's got an incredible work ethic. When you see him playing like he did tonight, you've got to sit there and just smile. You feel good just to see him playing like that."
Malone's big nights may be more widely separated than they used to be, but, then again, so are Sixers' wins. You take them where you find them and enjoy them while they last.