Saturday, May 15, 2010

Portland's Crowning Achievement: Part 5

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 5: Portland 110, Philadelphia 104 (Blazers lead series, 3-2)

There have been a few dime-store psychologists who have posited that a big reason for the enduring popularity of the Portland Trail Blazers’ 1976-’77 team was the big roles played by several white players.

Remember that the NBA was in a period of turmoil in the late 1970s. Cocaine use was rampant throughout the league, likely a reason for the erratic play and violent behavior on the court that alienated a lot of fans. It was a low ebb of popularity for the league; some of these Finals games were even shown on tape delay by CBS.

But it can’t be overlooked that a lot of fans from mainstream white American were turned off by the brash, in-your-face street style that many African-Americans brought to the NBA in the 1970s. So it is not a stretch to say that many of the remaining white fans clung to the players who looked like themselves — guys like Portland’s Bill Walton, Dave Twardzik and Bobby Gross.

But that line of thinking also discredits those players’ skills a bit. Walton, Twardzik and Gross could all play, and their standout performances were instrumental in helping Portland take Game 5 at the Spectrum. As we are reminded every year in the playoffs, Game 5s are pivotal and a series truly begins when a team wins on the road.

The Blazers started off a bit like they had in their forgettable performances in the first two games of the Finals in Philadelphia. They had four turnovers in the first few minutes of the game, something they desperately needed to avoid to have any chance. Gross was the calming influence with his dead-eye mid-range game. He dropped in eight points as Portland staked an 18-10 lead. However, Gross was saddled with three fouls in the first quarter, and the Blazers missed his defense on Julius Erving as Philadelphia crept back to within 45-41 in a relatively low-scoring half.

Gross helped ignite the Blazers in the third quarter. His steal and three-point play were the key moments of a 17-2 run that put Portland in control of the game. The Blazers put 40 points on the scoreboard in the period, taking an 85-66 lead into the fourth quarter.

Philadelphia would make some runs in the fourth quarter, whittling the lead to five on several occasions. Gross hit a crucial shot to quell a spurt by the 76ers and give Portland a 96-84 advantage, but he fouled out with 4:54 left in the game. He finished with 25 points on 10-for-13 shooting, adding five assists and three steals.

Walton was his usual dominating self throughout the game, and he didn’t need the ball to do it. With Gross giving some unexpected scoring punch, Walton could focus on doing the dirty work. For the game, Walton had 14 points and pulled down 24 rebounds. On defense, he blocked several shots and altered many others.

Still, there were several stretched in the fourth quarter where it looked like the 76ers were going to run right by the Blazers. Earlier in the game, CBS had run a brief interview with Twardzik and the guard was asked about his role on the Blazers. He responded that he was in charge of making the right decisions, when to run if the action needed picking up or when to slow things down and run the pattern offense. That’s exactly what he did when Portland coach Dr. Jack Ramsay inserted him in the crunch-time lineup. Twardzik had 15 points and handled the offensive reins almost perfectly, save for a turnover with 36 seconds left and the Blazers clinging to a seven-point lead.

Maurice Lucas, one of those oft-criticized “street players,” added his usual steady offering of 20 points and 13 rebounds. But the Trail Blazers shouldn’t be broken down into black-and-white terms. Walton, Gross and Twardzik weren’t given any special pass on the court. Portland was just a perfect team, one that was headed home to claim a title on the court where the Blazers had won 17 straight games.

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