Examining the history of basketball one game at a time.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Portland's Crowning Achievement: Part 1
With the NBA playoffs getting down to brass tacks, Order of the Court will take a look at a great post-season series of the past: The Portland Trail Blazers’ 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1977 NBA Finals. There will be a post for each game.
Game 1: Philadelphia 107, Portland 101
The Portland Trail Blazers of 1976-’77 have a secure spot among the most revered teams of all time. Like the New York Knicks from earlier that decade, the Trail Blazers’ championship and its aftermath were the subjects of a pantheon hoops book (David Halberstam’s “The Breaks of the Game”), and the title squad is always included in conversations about team-first basketball.
But it is hard to find much to wax eloquent about in Portland’s performance in Game 1 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Maybe it was the nine-day layoff after eliminating the Los Angeles Lakers, but Portland’s venerated passing attack resulted in an unsightly 34 turnovers. Three starters for the Trail Blazers — Maurice Lucas, Bobby Gross and Lionel Hollins — fouled out of the sloppy game.
Even Portland’s Hall of Fame coach, Dr. Jack Ramsay, was outmaneuvered by his less-celebrated counterpart. Philadelphia coach Gene Shue devised an ingenious solution to Portland’s backcourt pressure: Let 7-foot-1-inch center Caldwell Jones occasionally bring the ball up the court. The Trail Blazers were on their heels from the opening tap, which Jones knocked to George McGinnis, who fed Julius Erving for a dunk and a 2-0 lead for Philadelphia before the ball had even touched the court.
Despite its self-inflicted wounds, Portland hung tough and got to within 101-99 with just under two minutes left. Philadelphia’s Darryl Dawkins hit three clutch free throws and grabbed a key offensive rebound to preserve the victory.
The uneven play was surprising given the number of so-called “cerebral” players on the court. Erving and Trail Blazers star Bill Walton are certified basketball geniuses. Philadelphia’s Doug Collins and Mike Dunleavy and Portland point guard Hollins became NBA head coaches. Walton, Dunleavy and Philadelphia’s Henry Bibby and Joe “Jellybean” Bryant sired professional offspring. (If you ever wonder why Kobe Bryant lapses into gunner mode sometimes, just watch tape of his father. In this game, “Jellybean” came into the game late in the second quarter and hoisted two shots in under a minute. It’s ingrained in the DNA.)
The game might not have been easy on the eyes, but it set up some themes to watch for throughout the series:
Maurice Lucas vs. George McGinnis: The battle at power forward was between two rugged, quick-tempered ABA refugees. Lucas was a tough rebounder for Portland who that season had added a consistent mid-range jumper. He also acted as sort of an enforcer for Walton (who named his NBA-playing son after his beloved teammate). Lucas got into foul trouble banging with the equally powerful McGinnis. Every rebound was a battle between the two, and a brief flare-up of tempers occurred in the second quarter but no blows were thrown (which often was the case with these bruisers).
The pace of play: Philadelphia wanted to lure Portland into a run-and-gun street game. The 76ers’ success in that endeavor helped turn Game 1 into a festival of turnovers. Portland liked to run, but did so selectively. The Trail Blazers’ fast break was more textbook, whereas Philadelphia’s was more improvisatory. Walton would snap one of his vaunted outlet passes to Hollins, who would make the decision whether to push it with Gross or Johnny Davis on the wings. Philadelphia would get the ball to Collins or Erving and let them sprint headlong to the rim.
The genius of Bill Walton: As often noted, this was the best professional season for the injury-plagued big man. He logged 2,264 minutes that season in 65 regular-season games, by far the most action of his career. The Portland offense revolved around Walton and his superior passing ability. Walton got 28 points and 20 rebounds in Game 1, but the key number was his three assists. The 76ers were constantly sending double teams to get the ball out of Walton’s hands quickly, before he could initiate the Trail Blazers’ attack.
The genius of Julius Erving: These Finals were described as the one-on-one 76ers against the celebrated teamwork of the Trail Blazers. But it’s hard to argue against just giving the ball to the good Doctor and getting out of the way. Erving was at his best in this game, stealing the ball and swooping in for a dunk just before the buzzer at the end of the first quarter for a 27-25 lead. He took over right after halftime, getting another steal and breakaway dunk on Portland’s first possession. He scored eight of Philadelphia’s first 10 points in the third quarter and finished with 33. Erving had highlight-reel dunks, of course, including a cram over an outstretched Walton after coming around a screen. But Erving’s most underrated moves, and maybe the prettiest, were when he drove on the left side of the basket and finished with his right hand, going right into the body of his defender.
It might have been an inauspicious beginning, but the seeds of a classic series were evident. Portland had played terribly, but was right in the game at the end. The chance for immortality was still there.