Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Portland's Crowning Achievement: Part 2

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 2: Philadelphia 107, Portland 89 (76ers lead series, 2-0)

The fight was inevitable. The Portland Trail Blazers were playing too poorly and were too frustrated by the Philadelphia 76ers dictating the tempo of the game. The referees had swallowed their whistles in the fourth quarter. Most of all, there were just too many outsized personalities at the Spectrum in Philadelphia for Game 2.

By most accounts, the plot of the 1977 NBA Finals pivoted with the fracas that occurred a little more than halfway through the fourth quarter of Philadelphia’s victory. Something had to change for Portland, which kept making the same mistakes that doomed them in Game 1.

Above all else, the Trail Blazers wanted to take care of the basketball after committing 34 turnovers in the series opener. Well, Portland had five turnovers in the first five minutes of the game and ended up with 29. The Trail Blazers were frosty from the field the entire game, shooting just 36 of 101. Once again, Bill Walton was bottled up inside and couldn’t jump-start Portland’s passing game. Silly fouls kept putting Philadelphia on the line.

Philadelphia pulled away in the second quarter, forcing a breakneck game and scoring 14 points in three minutes. The run was sparked by 76ers power forward George McGinnis, who was mired in a shooting slump throughout the post-season. After he checked in, McGinnis immediately got an acrobatic layup, a steal and an assist that gave Philadelphia a 43-32 lead with 6 minutes left in the half. McGinnis finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds, giving 76ers fans hope that he had come out of his funk.

Speaking of funk, the 76ers also got a lift from Darryl Dawkins, two years out of high school and not yet fully into his “Chocolate Thunder” persona. Dawkins was a high-energy crowd favorite at the Spectrum. He led a fast break after blocking a Walton shot that pushed the pace to a frantic level, and Julius Erving’s swooping dunk just before the halftime buzzer helped the 76ers sprint into the locker room with a 61-43 advantage. Dawkins’ play also prompted CBS’ Brent Musberger to explain to viewers that Dawkins moonlighted as a DJ, providing a clip of the 20-year-old “talking his jive.”

The 76ers welcomed back another outlandish player, Lloyd B. Free, who still hadn’t legally changed his name to “World.” He had been out with a fractured rib and collapsed lung, but that didn’t slow his chucker tendency. He played only a few minutes, but was sure to get some shots up. It would have been something to watch the 76ers scrimmage that season, with unrepentant gunners Erving, Free, McGinnis, Doug Collins and Joe “Jellybean” Bryant all vying for shots.

Philadelphia pushed the lead to 20 in the third quarter, and Portland’s frustration began to manifest itself into hard fouls. The main culprit, as always for the Trail Blazers, was Maurice Lucas. The former Marquette and ABA star must have been upset after breaking loose for 10 points in the first quarter but only four thereafter. There was also the constant physicality of McGinnis underneath the basket.

Lucas was definitely near the breaking point in the fourth quarter, with the Trail Blazers unable to mount any sort of run to get back into the game. First he challenged Erving to try and take Lucas one-on-one (probably never a good idea). Then Lucas got into some jawing with Collins and 76ers tough guy Steve Mix. The officials kept letting these episodes escalate. A dustup was nearly touched off when McGinnis tangled with Portland’s Lloyd Neal for a rebound. There was some preliminary pushing, and Lucas wanted to get into the action, sprinting over for a piece of fellow hothead McGinnis. Trail Blazers coach Jack Ramsay was quick on his feet, however, running off the sidelines directly to Lucas — not the main combatants — so he could hold back the team’s enforcer from doing anything crazy.

That was just the undercard, however. A few minutes later, Dawkins and Bobby Gross simultaneously grabbed a rebound, and when Dawkins tried to wrest control he slammed Gross to the floor. Gross took exception and words were exchanged. Dawkins took a swing a Gross but accidentally hit teammate Collins. Dawkins backpedaled fatefully into the waiting elbow of Lucas. Those two started another tussle, actually putting up their dukes, with Dawkins bobbing and weaving like an elongated Michael Spinks. It was now a full-scale melee, with fans, coaches and hangers-on streaming onto the court. In other words, it was a typical NBA game in the late 1970s. Erving, as cool a customer as ever there was in the league, took a seat on the court and calmly watched the donnybrook.

Dawkins and Lucas were ejected, but unlike today’s NBA, there would be no further ramifications. There was finally some tension in a series that saw the 76ers rather breezily take a 2-0 lead. But it’s too hard to tell if the fight gave Portland the spark that ignited its four-game run to the title. The Trail Blazers just needed to find a way to clean up the 63 turnovers and to get Walton loose after the star center’s lackluster 17-point, 16-rebound performance in Game 2.

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