Perhaps it was early in the first quarter when rookie Ricky Sobers stood his ground to punch the golden face of Rick Barry, then settled down to lead the attack through deafening boos. Or maybe it was late in the fourth quarter when rookie Alvan Adams paused while taking down one of his 20 rebounds to nail another opponent with his elbow. Whenever it was, at some point last Sunday afternoon the Phoenix Sunderellas realized the slipper could be theirs.
All they had to do was stay close and prevent the Golden State Warriors' storied post-halftime explosion from occurring—which the Suns did by cutting an eight-point lead to nothing within three minutes at the beginning of the third quarter. They had to tighten the defense, take smart shots, catch up and pass the Warriors—which they did at the end of the third period. And they had to hang on, be cool, outpoise the champions, let Garfield Heard block shots, steal the basketball and pump in 21 key points. And especially they had to leave Barry standing around, pouting and wondering how a bloody nose would look when his next TV color-man assignment turns up.
In short, what the dazzling Phoenix Suns had to do—and did by a score of 94-86—was keep shining on in the seventh game of the NBA's Western Conference final playoffs in Oakland while the Golden State Warriors' instant dynasty collapsed before our very eyes.
"It was incredible to watch, wasn't it?" said Phoenix' Keith Erickson at the end of the Suns' finest Sunday. "The Warriors went away from everything they've done for two years. One on one, forcing shots, scrambling, fouling, panic. When they started cracking, I knew."
May 23, 1976
It was indeed a remarkable sight when the champions unraveled. In truth, they had difficulty getting in synch all afternoon, so completely did the Suns overplay the passing lanes and clog up the Warriors. Still, as the pressure mounted, everybody expected that Phil Smith, Jamaal Wilkes and all the other scourges of mankind would meet the test.
Instead, a strange role reversal took shape. With Barry going nearly 30 minutes without a basket, with Smith scoreless for 20, the Warriors insisted on either standing still or flinging the ball around school-yard style.
From a 70-70 tie with more than nine minutes left, Adams and Paul Westphal made the baskets that put Phoenix ahead to stay. While Golden State was being shut out for 3:17, the Suns pulled away to an 80-72 lead and the shocking upset.
Warrior Coach Al Attles later said he "did not see 100% effort," but he refused to indict Barry.
The Suns, however, spoke up. Heard said the Golden State captain "didn't want to shoot it." Curtis Perry said Barry "never moved for the ball like he does." Dick Van Arsdale said "Rick seemed disenchanted. I think he was upset they couldn't blow us out."
For his part, Barry said the Warriors were unintelligent and had paid the price. "Everybody was yelling do this, do that," he said. "I run around, run around—for what? I never touched the ball sometimes. It was total breakdown. Ridiculous. We deserved to lose." Barry scored 20 points (six in the second half), which was 8.8 below his series average. Eight point eight would have gotten the Warriors to their second straight championship round by point eight.
Through two years of dominating the league, the Warriors had convinced everybody that their excellence enabled them to play only as hard as they had to. In their 59-23 regular season they were usually 35 points behind with the final seconds ticking down before rallying to outscore the opposition by nearly seven points a game. Attles said he "preached" the importance of respect for the enemy, but in the wake of the amazing flight of the Phoenixes, the champions seemed to have forgotten humility.
After the Suns deadlocked the series 2-all with their pulsating double-overtime 133-129 victory at home, Guard Charles Johnson said, "Phoenix is tough but we're making them tougher," and Barry credited "our own stupidity" with keeping the Suns alive.
All of this failed to take into account the indisputable fact that Coach John MacLeod's intelligent, well-drilled team, having lost the first game 128-103, had out-patiented Golden State in Game 2, 108-101. Though the Suns lost the third game 99-91, they beat the champions at their own running attack in Game 4.
Then, too, the Warriors' reputed grace under fire collapsed in the fourth game, in which they had a two-point lead and the ball with eight seconds left in regulation only to mess up, a two-point lead and the ball with 10 seconds left in the first overtime only to mess up, and a four-point lead in the second overtime only to be washed away by 14 straight Phoenix points. Was this stupidity or was this er, uh, the malady known as tight throat?
"The attitude that they give games away is inevitable for a team with such success," said Westphal, the former Celtic. "We had it in Boston. But it's irritating to beat the Warriors, and then hear this nonsense that they blew it."
The rising Suns also were upset about remarks reputedly made by CBS' Sonny Hill to Golden State's Clifford Ray that "These turkeys [Phoenix] don't belong on the court with you guys." Whether Hill uttered the slur was moot; the Suns believed he had and they were mad.
Nevertheless, in Game 5 in Oakland, Charles Johnson burst out with 10 first-quarter points and helped the Warriors put together their biggest period of the series and a 40-24 margin about which Phoenix could do nothing the rest of the evening.
"I'm tired of hearing that we don't give them credit," sneered Ray after the 111-95 Warrior victory. "Any team that gets this far has busted their humps. But if we don't think we're the best, we lose the whole idea."
As the teams departed the Bay Area for Phoenix, the Suns were most concerned about Adams, who had a slight ankle sprain, and Heard, who had an abscessed tooth.
Attles meanwhile contemplated the continued use of Barry in backcourt—a switch he had made in Game 5—for defensive reasons. "This thing is far from over," the coach said. "My guys are like horses chomping at the bit. They just won't let us run."
As the sixth game began, Sobers scored eight quick points as the Suns burst to a 22-10 lead. Right away Charles Dudley raced off the bench to do his thing, which consists of igniting Golden State into a frenzied state. It took Dudley just 2:40 of his characteristic shakin' and bakin' to get the contest tied up at 22. In the process of hitting eight straight baskets, Barry moved to guard and the Warriors had a 57-54 halftime lead.
To begin the third quarter, Attles went to the more practical backcourt of Dudley and Smith. But Sobers kept burning—he had 21 points by the end of the period and the Suns led again 85-78—so the coach put Barry back at guard, enabling Smith to defend against Sobers.
It was a peculiar move for a championship team to make, especially one renowned for its backcourt depth, and it did not sit well. "I don't know why I was at guard; ask Attles," Barry was to snap later. "We won 59 with me at forward. I just do what I'm told."
The fact that Smith shut off Sobers did not make up for a weary Barry, who had a game-high 30 points, being unable to score more than one basket in the fourth quarter while being hounded by the tenacious Van Arsdale. Rick's new position also put him in unfamiliar territory when two final moments of reckoning arrived.
The first came with 15 seconds to go in the game, Phoenix behind 104-103. When Erickson spotted Adams cutting backdoor on Ray, he nailed a perfect pass which the rookie took and jammed in for a 105-104 Phoenix lead. Then it was Golden State's turn. With 11 seconds left, Smith got entangled with Barry at mid-court. The All-Star guard could not find dribbling or shooting room and he desperately passed to Wilkes in the right corner. Wilkes went high in the air, but his shot was not whirled round the Heard. As the buzzer sounded Heard thundered out of nowhere to knock the ball halfway to Gila Bend. Mr. Tooth Decay's move tied the series once more. After such a classic finish in which both teams had one play in which to show their mettle, it was noteworthy that the young upstart Suns had converted and the cool, poised Warriors had not.
Yet Phoenix' final victory one game later was no fluke. Westphal said his team had taken inspiration from the Golden State experience of last May, and the Warriors' Smith agreed. "Phoenix is ambitious, hungry and has great energy," he said. "They've had a coming together that reminds me of us."
In the end, everywhere the champions looked they saw the Suns. Even in the mirror.