Depending upon which team you fancied, it was the Coming-of-Age Series or the Exposing-the-Myth Series or even the Series Nobody-Saw-Much-of-Outside-the-Picturesque-Wonderlands-of-Oregon-and-Colorado. In any case, it was a taut and exhausting competition that the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets—hardly a couple of traditional rivals—waged last week in the semifinal playoffs of the NBA Western Conference.
While most TV attention was focused on the more glamorous pairings in the founding colonies (Philadelphia-Boston) and out on the California freeways (Los Angeles-Golden State) and even down along the Tex-Tax connection (Houston-Washington), the Portland vs. Denver matchup turned out to be the kind of classic struggle not ordinarily associated with such babes in the NBA playoff woods.
"Heart throbbers," Denver Coach Larry Brown called the games in which his team always seemed to be on the verge of winning until some strange shot or official's call or mental breakdown proved to be the Nuggets' undoing.
Indeed, though Portland led the series 3-2 after losing to the Nuggets in Denver Sunday, the situation easily might have been reversed, so well-balanced and evenly matched were the adversaries. The difference was that the young Trail Blazers seemed to grow and gain poise and confidence—not to mention the respect engendered by the terrifying gaze of their 6'9" Forward Maurice Lucas—while, until the fifth game, the Nuggets unraveled and turned to fool's gold amid injuries, self-doubt and the internal bickering that Brown had tried so hard to prevent.
The imposing presence of Lucas, who has had the best year of any power forward in the NBA, influenced the series even before it started. In the regular season Big Luke averaged 23.5 points and 13 rebounds against the Nuggets, so Brown juggled his lineup, moving David Thompson to the backcourt and inserting veteran Paul Silas in the corner to cope with Lucas.
But in Game One in Denver, Lucas found Silas no hindrance, scoring 11 baskets and taking down 13 rebounds. Indeed, in the final minutes the assignment of containing Lucas was given to Dan Issel. Nonetheless, with 11 seconds remaining Portland trailed by a point. Thompson had just blown two chances to clinch the game, first by missing two free throws, then by whipping a pass out of bounds. Well, if the Nuggets didn't want it, Lucas would take it.
The Portland play was set up for Dave Twardzik to cut back door. Lucas didn't even glance his way. He backed-in Issel toward the basket, turned and sank a line-drive 14-footer that won the game 101-100.
Afterward, Blazer Coach Jack Ramsay quieted the uproarious Portland locker room for his usual serious dissertation. Then he said, "First, Luke gets fined $50 for not running the play." The Blazers broke up.
Lucas arrived in the NBA this season following a stormy career, in which he went from Schenley High in Pittsburgh to Marquette University to St. Louis and Kentucky of the ABA and, finally, to a hillside house in southwest Portland, where he resides with his stunning wife Rita, a graduate of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and an assistant director of computer services for the city.
Lucas' reputation as a dukes-up intimidator—considerably enhanced in the mini-series with the Chicago Bulls when he punched out a trainer and nearly strangled a referee by pulling his whistle chain—as well as the fact that he plays second banana to Bill Walton, have kept him from being acclaimed as a superstar. As he says, somewhat paradoxically, "I'm no crazy boxing madman, but I just want them to know Luke is out busting chops. If I had this kind of year in New York, I'd be governor."
Lucas had this kind of second game against the Nuggets: 13 for 17 from the floor and 29 points. Though Denver won, with Issel scoring 36, the 121-110 score was deceiving in that the Nuggets shot 39 free throws to the Blazers' 15, and Walton fouled out with 7:36 to go after two surprising calls.
As the series moved to Portland, however, Denver's problems multiplied. Both teams like to run and play tight, aggressive defense, but the Nuggets' defense is based on overplaying the passing lanes and keeping the ball away from key people. But they could not keep it away from Walton, and when he got it they could not cheat on his receivers, because Walton is the league's best passing center.
In Game Three Thompson scored 40 points, but Issel, hobbled by an infected toe, was not a factor. Lucas, who had 27 before fouling out, was not around when the turning point came on a play the Nuggets seem unable to make in pressure situations—when they are behind, say, 108-106 with 15 seconds left.
That was the situation when Denver's Jim Price, racing to the attack on a three-on-one fast break for the tying goal, fumbled the ball. Walton alertly recovered it and quickly passed off for a Twardzik-to-Herm Gilliam layup, which sealed a 110-106 victory.
In Game Four, Issel still was immobilized, and Thompson got a couple of odd early foul calls, after which the Denver star raged and swore, was hit with a technical and played pitifully the rest of the evening.
More? Portland's Bob Gross threw a behind-the-head pass to Walton that miraculously went in the basket for two of Gross' 25 points. At one stretch in the fourth quarter the Blazers had possession of the ball for nearly two minutes, taking seven shots (none went in). Portland pulled away in the closing minutes for a 105-96 win.
"It must be the fates," Brown said of the preceding activity.
But solid teams make their own breaks. During the regular season the Nuggets were 4-14 in games decided by five points or less; now they were in obvious disarray.
Brown complained he had nobody who wanted the ball in the clutch except Thompson. "After this thing is over, I'm backing the truck up," he said, hinting at wholesale housecleaning. The truth is Denver already had traded away most of its character, only to get big-money malcontents in return. Silas and others have been critical of Brown since mid-season. Mack Calvin and Brown were bickering even during the Nugget guard's 28-point effort in Game Four.
"The spirit isn't here anymore," said Forward Bobby Jones, who was struggling through his own poor series.
"We've just got to suck it up," said Brown. "We're in the dance to die now."
Renewed spirit, the twists of fate and a more normal, smaller lineup prevailed on Sunday when the high-flying Thompson, back at forward where he surely belongs, had 18 points at the half and 27 of his game-high 31 after three quarters. By that time Denver, which had been in command all the way, led 83-77, Walton and Gross were in desperate foul straits and Lucas was wandering through a puzzling malaise on the way to a nine for 23 shooting afternoon. Worse for the Blazers, Twardzik, the spark and soul of the backcourt, suffered a severe ankle sprain in the third period and was taken to the hospital.
With nine minutes to go Denver led by 10, but Gilliam, subbing for Twardzik, brought Portland back. With less than two minutes left, the gap was just five. The pattern seemed familiar (Thompson kept thinking, "What is this? Here we go collapsing again"), except that this time the score was tied at 101 at the buzzer. But now, instead of folding up in a close game—as they had all year, as they had all series, as they just had in the final minutes of regulation—the Nuggets roared out into the overtime. Thompson scored right away. Issel tallied nine points and had two key rebounds (his totals were 23 and 18), Reserve Center Marvin Webster blanketed Lucas with stiff defense, and Denver won 114-105. "Maybe we've got something left," said Brown, facing the prospect of having to meet the Blazers again in Portland the following night. "It will be fun to see what the Nuggets are made of now."