With the NBA Finals going on right now, it reminded me of the Blazers' championship run in the 1977 NBA playoffs. The 1976-77 Blazers were a young team with a thirst for the championship.
It was a magical year for the Portland Trail Blazers.
The team was founded just six years earlier in 1970. For their inaugural year, they held the eighth overall pick, selecting Geoff Petrie.
During the 1976-77 season, the Blazers held the third-best record in the Western Conference, displaying a 49-33 record. This would also be the team's first-ever playoff appearance and the team definitely made the most of it.
Prior to the season, the Blazers hired Dr. Jack Ramsay to become their new head coach. Ramsay was known as an up-and-coming coach with an unlimited amount of success. The Blazers were just hoping they found the right guy. And they did.
The merger led to a major reshuffling of star players, as the Blazers eventually dealt their first draft selection ever, Geoff Petrie, and Steve Hawes to Atlanta for the No. 2 selection in the ABA Dispersal Draft. They would end up selecting Maurice Lucas, who would become a catalyst in the team's championship run.
A look at the team's lineup:
Point Guard: Lionel Hollins, Johnny Davis
Shooting Guard: Dave Twardzik, Herb Gilliam, Larry Steele
Small Forward: Bob Gross, Corky Calhoun, Wally Walker
Power Forward: Maurice Lucas, Lloyd Neal, Clyde Mayes
Center: Bill Walton, Robin Jones
Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas represented the team in the 1977 All-Star game, although Walton had to miss it due to injury.
The team was very strong at the start of the season, soon becoming one of the best teams in the Western Conference.
However, the Blazers faltered in February and March, compiling just a 10-16 record in those two months. They compiled a 5-0 record in April, eventually placing themselves back in the playoff picture.
The Blazers would go up against the Chicago Bulls in the first round, winning the series two games to one. The first round matchup was perhaps the toughest matchup for the Blazers throughout the 1977 playoffs.
Portland had swept the regular season series against the Bulls, 4-0. But this Bulls team was one of the scrappiest teams ever, as they got back into the playoff picture after winning an astounding 20 of their last 24 games.
The Blazers won the first game of the series, 96-83. But for Game 2, the Blazers had to go to Chicago where 20,000 fans were yelling and rooting against them.
Artis Gilmore helped lead the Bulls to a narrow victory, 104-101.
"It was my very first playoff series. And the middle game played in Chicago—to this day—was the most thrilling, exhilarating basketball game I have ever played in," said Walton, who was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player for that season.
"You could write a book about that entire series. The referees' strike, the personalities, Artis Gilmore, Norm Van Lier, Wilbur Holland, Maurice Lucas, Mickey Johnson and the coaches, Jack Ramsay and Ed Badger."
The two teams would go back to Portland for Game 3, where a sellout crowd, known as Blazermania, welcomed their team back in hopes of moving on in the playoffs.
The game turned out to be a very physical game, with Dave Twardzik, Maurice Lucas, and Walton all fouling out in the fourth quarter.
Following multiple lead changes, the Blazers took a slim 100-98 lead late in the fourth quarter. Head coach Jack Ramsay called on Lionel Hollins to take the most important shot of his young career.
As the shot clock expired, Hollins hit a jumper and the Blazers wre moving on to face the Denver Nuggets in the second round.
The Nuggets, led by David Thompson, Dan Issel, Paul Silas, and Bobby Jones had the second best record in the league. They were also averaging about 112 points per game, definitely near the top of the NBA.
Portland narrowly defeated the Nuggets in Game One, as Maurice Lucas hit the game-winner with 11 seconds left in the game.
The Nuggets took Game Two, but Denver knew they were in trouble as they would be going to Portland for Games Three and Four.
David "The Skywalker" Thompson went off in Game Three, scoring 40 points. But that wasn't enough, as the Nuggets lost the game 110-106, and the Blazers took a 2-1 advantage.
Knowing that Thompson was one of the most elite scorers in the league, the Blazers were hoping that they could contain him in Game Four. They did the best they could, but Portland would still go on to win the game, 110-96.
The series was now headed back to Denver for Game Five, as the Nuggets stood on the brink of elimination.
The Nuggets jumped out to an early lead in the fifth game, as Portland tried to keep up for most of the first three quarters. At the end of the third quarter, the Blazers had trimmed the lead down to 14, slowly but surely catching the heavily favored Nuggets.
The Blazers would go on to outscore the Nuggets 28-14 in the final period, forcing overtime. But the Blazers seemed worn out, as the Nuggets eventually won the game, 114-105.
Rookie Johnny Davis was inserted into the starting lineup for the injured Dave Twardzik, and the rookie clearly did not disappoint.
He helped the Blazers take a 33-16 early in the game and the Nuggets were then forced to play catch-up for the rest of the game.
Led by Davis, the Blazers won the game, 108-92. Davis shot 10-for-14 from the field, quickly turning into 25 points.
Hollins added 21 points for the Blazers, as they were now moving on to face the powerhouse Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
In the previous round, the Lakers struggled against the Golden State Warriors, winning a close series 4-3. But no one expected what would happen in the conference finals.
The Lakers would be swept by the Blazers, 4-0, as the Blazers would get their first-ever shot at an NBA Championship.
Game Two of the series was perhaps the most exciting game of the series, as the Blazers were led by the unheralded Herm Gilliam.
Down by 11 points in the third quarter and unable to stop Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Blazers turned to Gilliam. The role player scored 20 of his 24 points in the second half, including 14 of those coming in the fourth quarter.
Gilliam's performance sparked a comeback for the Blazers, as they won the game, 99-97.
"He not only won that game for us," said teammate Maurice Lucas, "I'm not sure we would have won the title without him doing that. Winning that game and then sweeping the Lakers in four straight gave us so much confidence for the championship series against the 76ers. Had we lost in Los Angeles, things might have been different."
Bill Walton remembered Gilliam's performance vividly, saying, “We were down and out in the second half. Kareem was torturing me, and we were about to go down to defeat. Ninety seconds later, Herm had restored complete order in the universe."
"Everything he touched turned to gold: jumpers, drives, rebounds, steals, deflections … the Lakers couldn’t even get the ball up court. It was an incredible performance,” Walton fondly remembered.
Gilliam teamed with Hollins to give the two Lakers guards, Don Chaney and Earl Tatum, headaches throughout their minutes.
Hollins had an amazing eight steals in the game and in just 28 minutes, Gilliam added four more steals to the stat sheet. The Lakers had 25 turnovers in the game, which many can blame for the Game Two collapse.
Gilliam said in a postgame interview, "Some people say we don't have good outside shooters. We have them. We just don't look for that many outside shots. I think I can score on anybody one-on-one, but I realize that too much emphasis on that kind of game can get you in trouble It can interfere with the team game."
The Blazers would go on to face the Philadelphia 76ers, led by Julius "Dr. J" Erving, in the championship round.
Game One of the series was one that the Blazers wanted to forget.
On the opening tip, Erving managed to immediately drive down court and show off a windmill dunk, electrifying the crowd. That dunk changed into momentum for the 76ers, as they led nearly the entire game.
Portland committed an astounding 34 turnovers in the game, as they lost the first game, 107-101.
Game Two didn't get any better for the Blazers.
The 76ers easily handled the Blazers, as they would go on to cruise, 107-89. However, many people didn't realize what would happen in the final five minutes, as many Blazers fans consider that moment as the turning point of the series.
Philadelphia's Darryl Dawkins and Portland's Bob Gross both went up for a rebound, neither of them able to strip the ball away from the other player. They wrestled each other to the floor and with tempers flaring, the two players squared off.
Dawkins and Lucas were both fined $2,500.
With the series moving to Portland for Game Three, the Blazers realized that they had to win both games to get back into the series.
However, before the game even started, Maurice Lucas, who was ejected from Game Two walked over to the 76ers bench and shook hands with Darryl Dawkins, hoping they could keep the past behind them.
The Blazers finally looked like the team that they were in the regular season, as the offense starting to take charge.
They posted an amazing 42-point fourth quarter to win the game easily, 129-107.
Perhaps the biggest moment of the game was when Gross attempted an alley-oop pass to Bill Walton, and the latter was able to tip it in over Dawkins, who knocked Walton to the floor.
The Sixers then threw the ball in bounds, but was stolen by Dave Twardzik, who immediately found Walton, who had just gotten up, for an alley-oop dunk.
Walton almost had a triple-double in the game, as he finished it with 20 points, 18 rebounds, and 9 assists. All five Blazers starters scored at least 15 points in the game.
The series was now 2-1, with the 76ers now on the ropes.
The Blazers, now realizing that they now had a great shot at winning both games in Portland, started Game Four off on a 19-4 run to start the game.
They never looked back, even when their star player, Bill Walton, was forced to the bench due to foul trouble in the third quarter. With Walton on the bench, Portland outscored the 76ers, 27-10 and their lead ballooned to 41.
Philadelphia would outscore the Blazers in the fourth by nine points, but it was not enough, as the Blazers easily handled the 76ers, 130-98.
Hollins led the Blazers with 25 points, with Maurice Lucas adding 24 points.
Walton played just 26 minutes in the win, but certainly filled the stat sheet. He scored 12 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, dished out seven assists, and blocked four shots.
The 76ers' Julius Erving scored 24 points, but the other four starters scored the exact same amount. That's more than likely what led to such a dominant performance by the Blazers.
With the series tied 2-2, the series was headed back to Philadelphia for Game Five.
The 76ers felt comfortable, even though they had lost the last two games. They had won every game at home during the postseason and thought they would down the Blazers easily.
But that was not the case.
The 76ers spent most of the first half fouling the Blazers, racking up 22 at halftime. Both teams were in the 40s at half, something that really hadn't happened in the series thus far.
However, the Blazers would go on to score 40 points in the third quarter. At one point, with the Blazers holding on to just a one-point lead, they would go on a 31-13 run to enter the last period leading by 19.
Julius Erving kept the Sixers in the game in the fourth quarter, as he helped trim the lead to five points with 3:26 left in the game.
They would not get any closer, as the Blazers won the game, 110-104.
Bob Gross was the leading scorer for the Blazers with 25 points. Walton went on a rebounding frenzy, grabbing 24 rebounds and scoring 14 points. He also helped hold Philadelphia's center, Caldwell Jones, scoreless.
Erving scored 37 points in the losing effort.
With the Sixers now on the ropes and losing the series 3-2, they were now headed back to Portland.
5,000 fans turned out to welcome the Blazers team home at the airport.
Game Six turned out to be the most important game in the franchise's history, with the team hoping to take home their first ever championship.
The game was close for the majority of the first half, but the Blazers used a 39-20 run to take a 12-point lead at halftime.
Entering the final quarter, the Sixers were able to cut the lead down to just nine points.
They were then able to cut the lead down even more to three points with just 51 seconds left in the game.
Maurice Lucas missed one of two free throw attempts, then Philadelphia's George McGinnis made a jumper to trim the lead down to just two points.
The 76ers forced a tip ball and won it, getting three shots on the final possession in hopes of either getting the win or forcing overtime.
But they missed all three attempts and Portland won the game, 109-107. Fans immediately stormed the court in celebration, as Bill Walton threw his jersey into the stands.
Walton had one of the best all-around performances in finals history, scoring 20 points, grabbing 23 rebounds, blocking eight shots, and tallying seven assists.
He was named Finals MVP after averaging 18.7 points, 19 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 3.7 blocks per game.
This would turn out to be the franchise's only championship (thus far). But with a good, young cast on the current team, the Blazers are hoping they can add more hardware.