Sunday, May 16, 2010

Portland's Crowning Achievement: Part 6


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 6: Portland 109, Philadelphia 107 (Blazers win, 4-2)

The series had to end this way, with the Trail Blazers returning to one of the best NBA cities and Bill Walton turning in an immortal Finals performance. Portland was ready — 4,500 fans had shown up at the airport in the middle of the night to greet the team after the Blazers’ victory at Philadelphia in Game 5. The volume at Memorial Coliseum for Game 6 was at ear-splitting levels even before the tap.

Then the fans got to witness one of the finest opening quarters they could ever hope to see. The Blazers and 76ers had yet to play at their highest levels simultaneously in the previous five games. So it was a good sign that Philadelphia’s George McGinnis, plagued by 35% shooting in the series, sank his first four shots. Both teams were hot, combining to make 16 of the initial 22 shots in the game. The game was tied, 27-27, after the opening 12 minutes.

Portland put together a 10-0 run in the second quarter to take a 50-40 lead with five minutes to go before halftime. The Blazers headed into the break with a 67-55 advantage after their fourth 40-point quarter of the series.

The Portland fans probably thought that the 76ers, laden with egocentric players, would fold. But Philadelphia kept battling back in the second half. The 76ers got three good looks at the basket in the final seconds, and Portland secured its lone title only after McGinnis’ shot fell short at the buzzer.

It was an unexpected special season for the Blazers. The team had never been in the playoffs before, or even had a winning season. Portland had a first-year coach in Dr. Jack Ramsay, who had to mold together seven new additions to the roster.

The Blazers went 49-33 in the regular season, thanks to the relative good health of Walton. Portland was 5-12 in games without its star center. Walton was probably never better as a professional than he was in Game 6: 20 points, 23 rebounds, eight blocks and seven assists.

This series is often remembered as the one in which Walton outshone Julius Erving. Dr. J was equally brilliant in the final game, pouring in 40 points, including some dunks that could make you wear out the rewind button. Any highlight package of the 1977 NBA Finals will show Erving magnificently jamming over an outstretched Walton. That happened several times in the series. But Walton also won a fair number of the battles in which their paths crossed, blocking several of Erving’s headlong forays to the basket.

It seemed like there was a budding dynasty in Portland. Walton was finally healthy, and the talented players surrounding him were still young. The Blazers started the next season 50-10 before Walton went down again. The heartbreaking end to those dynastic hopes can never be told better than in David Halberstam’s “The Breaks of the Game.”

But at least Walton got Portland to the top of the mountain before the wheels came off the team. The Blazers’ four victories in eight days were a sight to behold, personifying the team concept of basketball in an era of the NBA that many observers would like to forget. Everything aligned perfectly for Portland that season, and it brought a title to a town that deserved a champion.

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