Thursday, May 13, 2010

Portland's Crowning Achievement: Part 3


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 3: Portland 129, Philadelphia 107 (76ers lead series, 2-1)

Forget the fight. It proved not to be the turning point of the series — that came in the fourth quarter of this game. The Portland Trail Blazers also needed to put the Game 2 ruckus out their minds, much easier now that the series had shifted to Portland and its raucous bandbox of a gym.

Any lingering hostilities after the Maurice Lucas-Darryl Dawkins punch-up were quashed when Lucas surprisingly ran over to Philadelphia’s bench during player introductions and shook hands with Dawkins. The Blazer faithful at Memorial Coliseum roared their approval. After some obligatory booing of Dawkins when he first checked into the game, the matter was old news.
Portland couldn’t waste any thought on the first two games, anyway. It had to clean up its act, mostly on the offensive end. The Blazers needed stronger play out of their backcourt, cutting down on the turnovers and hitting open shots so things would loosen up for Bill Walton in the post.

Dr. Jack Ramsay also wanted his team to come out firing to get the crowd going early. Portland obliged, racing out to a 10-4 lead before Philadelphia’s Gene Shue called a timeout to settle his team down. Rookie guard Johnny Davis (that’s him in the above photo) provided the backcourt spark, scoring 10 of the Blazers’ first 20 points. Portland led, 34-21, after the first quarter and it seemed like the team had righted its listing ship.

But the Blazers’ old demons reared their ugly heads in the second quarter. The hot shooting cooled, and the turnovers began to mount. Portland, which averaged 15 turnovers per game in the season, coughed it up 13 times in the first half of Game 3. For a team that prided itself on crisp ball movement, the 76 turnovers in the first 10 quarters of the Finals were unacceptable. Adding to the Blazers’ troubles was the play of Lionel Hollins. The normally steady guard was atrocious in the first two quarters of Game 3, shooting 1 for 9 and missing several easy shots.

The 76ers crawled back into the game behind usual suspects Doug Collins and Julius Erving. They cut Portland’s lead to 54-53 before a miss by the 76ers’ George McGinnis (still deep in a slump) precipitated a 6-0 run by the Blazers to end the half.
Still, the only way the Blazers could run off four straight victories was if Walton got room to operate. Davis did his part by hitting outside shots so that the wing defenders couldn’t sandwich Walton. Ramsay helped by drifting Walton more to the elbow, creating more lanes so one of the greatest-passing big men ever could hit cutters.

Then there was Lucas, Walton’s partner in the post and confidant off the court. It might have seemed an unlikely pairing, the glowering black man from rugged Pittsburgh and the free-spirited “great white hope” from the West Coast. But here’s what David Halberstam wrote in “The Breaks of the Game”:

“When Lucas came to Portland he had gone out for dinner with Walton the first night, and they decided that they both could be winners. Luke promised that he would take the physical pressure off Walton — he would love banging bodies. They had agreed, in addition, and this was crucial for two big men, that they would not let their egos get in the way, they would not be jealous of each other; they were the big men, they would run this team and they would from the outset be friends.”


That relationship played out beautifully in Game 3. One could see the influence of Walton in how Lucas started making the snappy outlet pass on the way down from grabbing a rebound. Lucas’ vastly improved mid-range jumper, which was going great guns in this game, freed up more space for Walton. The two also worked the high-low game, giving each other gorgeous feeds. The offense was in gear, with the Trail Blazers giving up the ball only twice in the second half and Walton (20-18-9) and Lucas (27-12-5) posting big numbers for the game.

The Blazers had trouble putting Philadelphia away in the second half. Portland would go up by 10 or 12, then let the 76ers close the gap. Everything changed, including the momentum of the series, after Philadelphia got to within 91-87 with 9:20 remaining in the game.

The key substitution was getting Dave Twardzik in for the struggling Hollins. Twardzik had been a starter before badly spraining an ankle earlier in the post season. Portland’s offense started to have more flow, then Walton made the two biggest plays of the series. First, he cut backdoor and made a stunningly athletic tap-in of a lob pass from Bobby Gross. Twardzik stole the ball at mid-court and lofted another pass that Walton crammed home.

The Memorial Coliseum was quaking. Those two baskets by their star center and a shot of adrenalin from the home crowd were what it took for the Blazers to play at their highest level. The shots started falling, the ball moved around the perimeter with more authority. Portland oozed confidence, going on a 38-20 run to end the game. The sign unfurled behind the Trail Blazers’ bench at the end of the game said it all: “Red hot and rollin’.”

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