Pro Basketball History 1976-79 (part 1)

SWC75

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(These posts will be the last in the series until the spring: i wanted to finish the 70's before getting completely into football)

Treading Water

Excellence continued to be elusive for the NBA as the decade coasted to its end.

The Celtics seemed to have re-established themselves as the NBA’s flagship franchise. But the two perpetual motion machines, John Havlicek and Dave Cowens, were slowing down. Havlicek was now 36 and his scoring average dipped to 17.7 in 1976-77 and 16.1 in 1978 at which point he retired with no less than 8 championship rings. Dave Cowens was still young, (28) but had worked and played so hard to overcome his size deficit at the center positon, he’d lost his enthusiasm for the game. “It wasn’t a rash decision, believe me. I had given it a lot of thought. I had been on a down period but everyone goes through down periods so I went to training camp hoping to work my way out of it. I thought once the season started I might regain my interest and enthusiasm. But it didn’t happen and it got to the point where I was feeling guilty taking my salary. I wasn’t making a contribution or helping the team. I had no motivation or enthusiasm and I couldn’t play this game without desire.” He left the team for 30 games, then came back and helped them make the playoffs and take the 76ers to a seventh game. But he was never quite the same player. Red Auerbach made him player-coach to keep him interested but he lasted only one losing season. He did get to play with Larry Bird for one year at the end of his Celtics career but was then supplanted by Robert Parrish, a man more in the mold of a traditional NBA center.

The influx of players from the ABA, most of whose franchises were disbanded, (it was not really a merger: the NBA just took the survivors on board), added to the league’s balance but not to its excellence. The Sixers seemed ready to dominate when they acquire Julius Erving to go with George McGinnis but the team proved to be less than the sum of its parts. Everyone else was either falling apart, building or rebuilding or just treading water.

After the excellence of the Knicks in 1970, the Bucks in 1971 and the Lakers in 1972, all of whom had the best record in the league and won the championship, the 1973 Knicks had the fourth best record in the league at 57-25; the 1974 Celtics had the second best at 56-26; the 1975 Warriors had the fourth best record at 48-34; the 1976 Celtics had the second best record at 54-28, the 1977 Blazers had the fourth best record at 49-33; the 1978 Bullets had the eight best record at 44-38 and the 1979 Sonics had the second best record at 52-30. Those last seven teams had an average record of 51-31, typically the record of an NBA also-ran. Nobody had repeated in the decade and those last three champions had never won it before and have never won it since. It was fun but it wasn’t awesome.


1976 - Billy, We Hardly Knew Ye

What would have bene awesome is if bill Walton had good feet. A healthy Walton could have made the Portland trail Blazers a potential dynasty, or at least a co-dynasty with Kareem Abdul Jabbar and the Lakers. Many writers predicted this would be this generation’s answer to Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell. Unfortunately, Walton proved very brittle and suffered many injuries, most of them to his feet, although he also broke his leg, his wrist and his nose. He played for 13 years but only ten actual seasons, missing three full years, the first in a dispute with the Blazers over how they were handling his injuries. In the ten years he did play, played in only 468 games, an average of 47 a year. Divide 468 by 82 games and you get the equivalent of less than seven full seasons. He played more than 67 games once- as a back-up for the Celtics at the end of his career, (he only played 19 minutes a game).

When healthy he was one of the best big men ever to play the game. he wasn’t a great scorer but averaged as much as 18.9ppg and led the NBA in rebo8udnign average in 1976-77 with 14.4 He was also one of the best passing big men ever, although the Blazers use that most to initiate their fast break. (Bill’s top assist average was 5.0). They played like the old Celtics, with an aggressive defense leading to fast breaks. Next to Bill was 6-9 225 Maurice Lucas, a productive player in his own right with 20.7p/11.4r in 76-77. 6-6 Bob Gross played fanatical defense and ran the court, scoring 11.4. 6-3 Lionel Hollins scored 14.7 and point man Dave Twardzik averaged 10.3, as did 6th man 6-6 Larry Steele. It was indicative of the team’s style of play that Twardzik only averaged 3.3 assists- but so did nearly every other player in the line-up, with Hollins actually leading at 4.1 Hit the open man!

This year Bill missed only 17 games, (his ankle) and the Blazers, 49-33, finished second in the West behind Jabbar’s Lakers who had the league’s best record at 53-29. Kareem was voted MVP with 26.2p/13.3r/3.9a. Cazzie Russell scored 16.4 and Lucius Allen 14.6 with 5.2 assists. But Kareem was the only guy in the starting line-up who averaged more than 4.3 rebounds and nobody but those three scored in double figures. When matched up against the Blazers, the came up short four times in a row. Kareem was at his best: 30.3/16.0/3.8 but Walton countered with 19.3/14.8/5.8 and Lucas, for whom the Lakers had no answer, was 23.0/11.8/4.0 and Hollins scored 21.8. The Blazers won the two games in LA 121-109 and 99-97 to take a commanding lead and they closed the Lakers out with 102-97 and 105-101 wins in Portland.

In the east it was about the league’s most talented team, the 76’s vs. the defending champion Celtics, who had Cowens back. They didn’t have Paul Silas, who had bene traded to Denver after a salary dispute and replaced with the two former UCLA stalwarts, Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, who Red Auerbach felt would be comfortable playing for a dynasty. They seemed no match for Dr. J and McGinnis. Erving had seen his scoring average drop from 29.3 with the ABA Nets to 21.6 as he tried to co-ordinate with big George, who scored 21.4. Lloyd Free added some outside shooting 16.3. (Five years later he changed his name to World B. Free.), Doug Collins provided some more scoring with 18.3. Gene Shue was the coach.

The Celtics bloodied the favored Sixers’ nose 113-111 in game one in Philly, thanks to 27-17 final period. An incredibly balanced attack with five guys, (Charlie Scott, Cowens, Jo Jo White, Wicks and Havlicek) with between 19 and 22 points. Erving outshone them all with 36 points and Collins had 27 but nobody else had more than 12 points. McGinnis was a dismal 3 for 11 for 6 points in 27 minutes.

The Sixers responded with a 113-101 win the margin provided by a 34-22 first quarter. Havlicek drank from the fountain of youth to score 31, topping Dr. J who had 30. But the Sixers put 6 guys in double figures to 4 and shot 50.6% -41.2%. McGinnis had a solid comeback with 16p/13r. Wicks and Rowe totaled 17/15.

Then Philly returned the favor by winning in Boston 109-100 with the first period again providing the winning margin, 34-25. Erving had 27, Collins 25, Free 23 and McGinnis 19/15. Havlicek had 25 and Scott 21 but Cowen had only 12/8 in 32 minutes. Wicks and Rowe totaled 20/11. Then the Celtics responded with an old-fashioned 124-119 win. That wasn’t that close as the Celtics bolted out to a 65-51 halftime lead and led by the same margin going into the fourth. Collins had 36, McGinnis 27 and Erving 23 but Boston matched that with Cowens scoring 37 and getting 21 rebounds, white scoring 26, Havlicek scoring only 12 but having 15 assists and Wicks scoring 18, (Rowe had 4).

Back in the Spectrum, the Sixers took the lead with a 110-91 win They had another strong first quarter at 30-20 and extended that to 62-44 at the half and were never threatened. Collins had 23, Erving 22 and Steve Mix came off the bench for 20. McGinnis was 5 for 15 for only 11 points but had the same number of rebounds. They out-shot the Celtics 51.6% to 39.6%. Scott had 20 for Boston but nobody else had more than 15. That was Curtis Rowe, who had his best game of the series with 15p/16r. Wicks had 14/10.

But the Celtics held serve in the Garden, 113-108. Jo Jo White fired up 31 shots and made 16 of them for 40 points. Collins, having a great series, tried to match him with 32. McGinnis had 22 points with 14 rebounds but Erving was 7 for 20 for only 14 points. Havlicek had 25, Scott 20 and Cowens 11 with 19 rebounds as the Celtics won the boards 55-38.

The Celtics were confident: they had never lost a 7th game to the Nats/Sixers. But they lost this one, 77-83. The only player for either team to hit half his shots was Rowe who went 5 for 9. The Sixers shot 33% to 30 % for the Celtics. White was 7 for 11 at halftime but 0 for 13 in the second half. He still led the defending champs with 17 points. There were 118 rebounds in this game and the Celtics got 65 of them, led by Cowens with 27. Erving had 14 points on 4 for 19 and McGinnis 8 on 4 for 13. Free saved the day with 27 points but even he missed 17 of 27 shots. From the Picture History of the Boston Celtics: “the Celtics had run their veterans into the ground in game 6 as Shue shuttled in fresh legs from the league’s most versatile bench.”

Moses Malone’s wanderings as the ABA folded compare to those of the original Moses. He had started out as a teenager with the Utah Stars. When they folded 16 games into the 1975-76 season, his contract was sold to the Spirits of St. louis, who folded when the league did. He’d been selected by the New Orleans Jazz, (who would ironically wind up in Utah, somehow retaining the same nickname), “in a December 1975 pre-merger draft for ABA players of undergraduate age. However, the NBA let them place Malone into the 1976 ABA Dispersal Draft pool in exchange for the return of their first-round draft pick in 1977, which they used to trade for Gail Goodrich. In the 1976 dispersal draft, held for the remaining ABA players, Malone was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers with the fifth overall pick in the draft.” (Wikipedia) Walton and Malone on the same team? No: “The Blazers, however, had also acquired power forward Maurice Lucas in the draft and believed that Malone and Lucas had similar skill sets. Concerns over the team's salary costs compelled them to choose one and release the other. Prior to the first game of the 1976–77 season, Portland traded Malone to the Buffalo Braves for a first-round draft choice in the 1978 NBA draft and $232,000. Malone played in two games with Buffalo. Because they could not meet Malone's demands for playing time, they then traded him to the Houston Rockets in exchange for two first-round draft picks.” The new Moses was 21 years old and had been the property of six teams so far. He led the Rockets to the Central Division title with a 49-33 record. He averaged 13.4 points and rebounds a game and was on his way to establishing a reputation are the league’s best offensive rebounder.

But Rudy Tomjanovich was their leading scorer (21.6) and Calvin Murphy (17.4p/4.7a) and John Lucas, (11.1p/5.6a) made an excellent backcourt. Houston was the Sixer’s opponent in the finals. The Sixers had no problem in the first game, winning 128-117 after building up a 17 point three quarter lead. Malone had 32 points and 12 rebounds. Lucas had 13 assists and Murphy 12 as the Rockets put six men in double figures. But only Malone scored more than 18. The Sixers also had 6 guys in doubles and three of them scored more than that Erving 24, Collins 23 and McGinnis 21. They also shot 58.7%. The Sixers also won game 2, 106-97, building a 12 point half-time lead, watching it melt to 3 and then pulling away in the late going. This time Murphy scored 32 and Tomjanovich 22. Malone only scored 7 but pulled down 18 rebounds. But they had only four double figure scorings McGinnis had 21 and Collins 20. Erving had 18 and 10 boards.

The Rockets responded strongly back in Houston with a 118-94 win. They opened with a 33-20 quarter and led by 18 at the half and closed it out with a 30-21 final quarter. Malone was a monster with 30 points and 25 rebounds. Tomjanovich had 24 and Lucas 20. Erving had 28 points but didn’t get much help. McGinnis and Collins were 10 for 30 between them and scored just 24 points. But Philly won the next game 107-95 after being behind 49-51 at the half. Collins had 36 points and Erving 29, making up for an awful game by McGinnis who went 1 for 8 and scored 8 points. Malone was even worse, going 1 for 8 for 5 points. But he had 13 rebounds to McGinnis’ 9. Tomjanovich had 24 and Murphy 22 but Houston’s best player this night was one Kevin Kunnert, who had 21 points and 17 rebounds.

The Rockets rose up and beat the Sixers at the Spectrum 118-115, thanks to a 33-25 final quarter. Erving had 37 and Collins 26 but the Rockets had seven guys in double figures, led by Tomjanovich and Lucas. Malone had 17 points and 19 rebounds, leading the Rockets to a +10 advantage on the boards. But the Sixers closed it out with a close-all-the-way 112-109 win in Houston. The home team won the first quarter 34-29 and the Sixers chipped away, getting to within 2 by the half, taking a 4 point lead after three quarters and then winning by 3. Erving scored 34 and Collins 27. Darryl Dawkins swooped down from Lovetron to score 20 and pull down 7 boards in 31 minutes. Malone had 17p/19r while Lucas had 24 and Murphy 22 while Kunnert had 21.

That put the Sixers in the finals where they had a chance to totally reverse one of the great collapses in sports history. In 1966-67 they had one of the greatest teams of all time, going 68-13, 79-17 if you include their playoff run. Six seasons later, in 1972-73, they went 9-73, the most losses in NBA history. Now they had a chance to win the NBA championship again, just four seasons later. But it wasn’t to be, although it looked really good after the first two games.

From “The NBA Finals”: “Erving opened game 1 with a stupendous dunk off the opening tip. He finished with 33 points, Collins had 30 and Philly won 107-101. The big factor, though, was (Henry) Bibby’s defense on Hollins. The Blazers were rattled enough to commit 34 turnovers. Walton finished with 28 points and 20 rebounds, but when the media came calling after the game. Erving didn’t want to engage in hero worship. “I’ll challenge anybody” he said.”

“And, in game 2, four nights later, the Sixers did an even better job, winning handily 107-89. Jones and Dawkins handled Walton easily and the Sixers ran off with the second quarter, scoring 14 points in one three minute stretch on their way to a 61-43 halftime lead. The game turned sour with about five minutes left. First Portland Lloyd Neal and McGinnis squared off. Then Lucas and Erving traded elbows Finally Dawkins and Gross went at it. After a tug-of-war over a rebound, Gross screamed at Dawkins, who responded with a roundhouse. Gross ducked at the least instant and the blow caught Dawkins’ teammate, Collins, who had been holding Gross. Lucas then nailed 6-11 260 pound Dawkins with a shot from behind and both benches jumped into the fray along with coaches, spectators, security guards and officials. Even (Portland Coach Jack) Ramsay and his assistant, Jack McKinney, took on a few fans before Ramsay turned his ire on Dawkins, only to be shoved out of the way…..Dawkins then trashed Philly’s locker room, turning over lockers, breaking a toilet and smashing a chalkboard. He stormed out in a rage, saying he was angry that his teammates had let Lucas jump him from behind. Professional wrestling couldn’t have claimed a gaudier main event.”

This may have been the real running point of the series. The Sixers were fighting themselves. Lucas was ready to fight them,. too. “I’m too professional to let this carry over. But this dude got built up like a gorilla, then thinks he can gorilla everybody. I’ll see Dawkins Sunday.” Dawkins responded: “Lucas is a fighter, but I can box. My uncle, Candy McDaniel, fought Joe Louis. He taught me. I usually stand ‘em up with a left and take ‘em out with a right.”
(This appears to be Candy McDaniels and he didn’t fight Joe Louis:
BoxRec: Candy McDaniels )

“The NBA Finals”: Lucas seemed ready to settle the matter eight off the bat that Sunday, may 29th. He strode directly to the Philly bench, then startled everybody, including Dawkins, by sticking out his paw for a shake. That matter settled, he and the Blazers proceeded to take out the Sixers with offense. Lucas himself contributed 27 points and 12 rebounds. Walton had a mere 9 assists, 20 points and 18 rebounds. Twardzik, too, had returned to speed, driving the Portland offense along to a 42 point fourth quarter. They won in a blaze, 129-107, closing the gap in the series 2-1.”

“The Philadelphia coaches decided they were relying on Collin’s perimeter shooting too much so they changed strategy for Game 4, attempting to send the ball inside to McGinnis and Jones. Walton responded with a shot-blocking fury at one end while Lucas did the offensive damage on the other. Portland opened up a quick 17 point lead, then spread the shellac thickly onto a 130-98 win.” These two games were all about huge quarters for the Blazers, who played their defense-to-fast break game to perfection in quarter #1 of game three (34-21) and quarter #4 of game three (42-25) and quarter #1 of game four (29-16) and quarter #3 of game four (41-21). The Sixers just couldn’t keep up. The Blazers also had incredible depth and balance. In game four Hollins scored 25, Lucas 24, Walton and Herm Gilliam 12, Gross and Wally Walker 10, Johnny Davis 9, Neal 7, Corky Calhoun and Larry Steele 6, Dave Twardzik 5 and Robin jones 4. It doesn’t matter if you’ve heard of them. They were open so they got the ball. The old Celtics had to be smiling because that’s how they played.

“The first half of Game 5 was just what the Doctor ordered – plenty of hacking that led to a halftime score in the 40’s, (45-41). But the Blazers got their running game going in the third, feeding it off steals and zooming to another 40 point quarter (40-25). With a little more than eight minutes left in the game, Portland led 91-69, and the crowd was headed home. The Doctor rallied the Sixers to make it respectable at the end, 110-104 but the naysayers had been confirmed.” Erving scored 37 but was “distraught” afterward: “I had a good feeling about tonight. It all backfired. It’s a bad scene.” Walton had 14p/24r. Gross actually led the Blazers with 25 points. And Lucas had 20p/13r.

It was a very good scene back in Portland where 5,000 fans were awaiting to greet them at the airport. “The official word for the mayhem was Blazermania. Always an emotional player, Walton rode to new heights on the crest of this wave. The next afternoon, a glorious, sunny Sunday, he had 20 points, 23 rebounds, 8 blocks and 7 assists…..the sixers kept even through the first period, then fell behind by 15 in the second. The Portland lead was still 12 with just half of the fourth quarter left when Erving led his teammates on one final run. At the four minute mark, the lead was cut to four, 102-98. Portland upped it back to 8 moments alter but free hit a free throw, (of course he would), and Erving canned a 20 footer and two foul shots to trim it to three. Lucas answered with a free throw. Then McGinnis came through with a jumper and the lead was only 2 with 18 seconds left. The Sixers needed a turnovers and finally got it from McGinnis, who forced a jump ball with Gross. Philly controlled and headed up-court. At 0:08, Erving put up a jumper in the lane. No good. Free got the ball and lofted a baseline shot. Again no good. With a second left, McGinnis got a final shot. It drew iron and…Walton knocked the loose ball away just to be sure, then turned, ripped off his drenched jersey and hurled it inti the delirious crowd.” Lucas: “If I had caught it, I’ve had eaten it. “Bill’s my hero.”

The next year the defending champion Blazers won 50 of their first 60 games. Then Bill Walton broke his foot. They went 8-14 the rest of the regular season and lost in the first round to the Sonics in 6 games. Wikipedia: “During the offseason, Walton demanded to be traded, citing unethical and incompetent treatment of his and other players' injuries by the Blazers' front office. He did not get his wish and sat out the 1978–79 season in protest, signing with the San Diego Clippers when he became a free agent in 1979.”

And that was it for the Blazers’ dynasty.
 
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