THIS IS THE ONE YOU OWE US. The banner hung in Philadelphia's Spectrum last Wednesday night, a message from 76er fans to the 76ers. Twenty minutes before game time a crowd that would reach a capacity of 18,276 was already stomping and screaming itself into a lather, and even the pregame warmups were unusually intense. Not many individual games in the long NBA season mean much anymore. This one clearly did.
Here were the two best teams in the league—the Philadelphia 76ers, the might-have-been-champions and suddenly the Team of Brotherly Love, versus the Portland Trail Blazers, the champions-in-fact. It took little more than the sight of Bill Walton hopping up and down, slapping his thighs, psyching himself during the national anthem, to summon up for 76er fans the awful memory of last spring's playoff finals. With Philadelphia ahead two games to none, Walton began making those funny rolling gestures with his hands above his head, and the Blazers responded by running the Sixers into whatever river happened to be nearest—the Schuylkill or the Willamette—on the way to winning four straight and the championship.
And there was an even fresher memory: in the next meeting of the two clubs, a nationally televised game in Portland on Oct. 28, the 76ers had taken a five-point lead into the fourth quarter, only to have the nightmare repeat itself. Same funny rolling gestures, and a 98-94 loss. Following that one, Walton reiterated what he had said after the playoffs: "Once we learn how to beat a team, we can do it and can keep doing it."
But though the names and faces were the same, the 76ers Walton & Co. faced last Wednesday were not the team the Blazers had learned how to beat. Coach Gene Shue was gone. Billy Cunningham had ridden up on a white stallion to hug and slap palms and joke with his love-starved millionaires, and the Sixers were off and running at their awesome best. Even with Darryl Dawkins, the youngest certified terrorist in NBA history, missing eight games after allegedly cutting his index finger washing dishes (some say it happened in a sword fight with his brother), the Sixers won 14 of their first 16 games under Billy C, including a string of 10 straight.
December 19, 1977
Portland, meanwhile, had been executing like a crack commando outfit, winning 18 of its 21 games, all 12 at home and six of nine on the road, outscoring its opponents by an astonishing average of 12.3 points a game, nearly double Philadelphia's second-best 6.3. And the Blazers did this with Forward Maurice Lucas out for five games with acute bronchitis.
On the afternoon of the Sixer game, Blazer Coach Jack Ramsay, fresh from a 116-94 win in Cleveland, Portland's eighth straight, downplayed the emotional aspect of the coming confrontation. Ramsay is one cool man.
"We beat Philadelphia in the playoffs because we played our game better than they played theirs," he said. "Right now we're even better. If we play well 1,000 times in a row, we should win 1,000 times in a row."
In the Spectrum, the 76ers were watching a videotape of the October loss to the Blazers, seeing themselves get hopelessly fouled up on defense in the fourth period, unable to switch fast enough to stay with Portland's perpetual motion. They watched their own offense break down into its once-characteristically selfish playground chaos. Cunningham turned off the sound so his players would not be distracted by the harsh criticism of the commentators, one of whom had been Billy Cunningham.
The coach still sounded like a TV man when he said, "What we have here tonight are the league's two hottest teams. But this game is not going to make or break either one." Cunningham is a cool one, too, and so are his players. Dr. Julius Erving, sounding curiously like Dr. Ramsay, said, "We feel if we play up to our potential, offensively and defensively, there is no way we can lose."
George McGinnis said he was anxious to even the score with Lucas, who had held him to 39% shooting in the playoffs. For his part, Lucas said, "Sure, Big George is waiting for me. Everybody is waiting for me. I'm like Billy the Kid."
"Somebody better warn Walton," said Dawkins, his finger healed. "Zandokahn, the mad dunker, is out tonight. That's Z-a-n-d-o-k-a-h-n. Made it up myself."
It took Portland all of four seconds to score the game's first basket, a typical blazing fast break off the opening tap, Walton (over Caldwell Jones, the starting center since Dawkins' injury) to Forward Bob Gross to Lucas. Then the probing began.
Portland's game plan all year has been to have Walton and Lucas hitting the defensive boards heavily and hurling blistering outlet passes to Lionel Hollins or Dave Twardzik to trigger the dreaded Portland fast break. In Philadelphia last Wednesday, the first part was working but the second was not. Sixer Guards Doug Collins and Henry Bibby were hustling back and clogging the passing lanes so quickly that for the first time all season the Blazers found their fast break shut down. And with McGinnis and Erving overplaying Lucas and Gross and joining Jones to double-team Walton when he cut to the basket, Portland found itself in the unfamiliar position of having to rely on outside shooting.
Meanwhile, the 76er offense, led by Erving and McGinnis, ran off one streak of 10 straight points, and when reserve Center Tom Owens gave Walton a breather, the Sixers unleashed another of 11, culminated by a soaring behind-the-head Dr. J dunk that put Philadelphia ahead 32-21. That brought the crowd and the Sixer bench to their feet. Walton was back into the game in a hurry.
But no one had warned him about Zandokahn, who chose to stay near the top of the foul circle and shoot perfect jumpers over Walton when he chose to stay back near the basket. When Walton came out, Dawkins would drive ferociously by him. On one such sequence Walton somehow managed to block Dawkins' attempted dunk, but McGinnis recovered the ball and shoveled it back to Dawkins, who put another move on Walton, made the layup and drew a foul for a three-point play. At halftime the Sixers led 55-51. But, as everybody in the Spectrum was painfully aware, they had been in that position before.
Forced out of their motion offense by the relentless Sixer defense, the Blazers tied the score five minutes into the second half, mostly on the shooting of Lucas and Gross and Walton's dogged rebounding. Walton was about to pull down another rebound when along came Dawkins, flying up and clean over Walton like a 747, tilting just enough to pound the ball straight down through Walton's hands and the basket.
"Zandokahn, with his spine chiller supreme," said Dawkins later.
But for the next three minutes it was Portland that did the chilling. Hollins hit a jumper, Walton answered Dawkins with a jam of his own, and Lloyd Neal, in for Lucas, put in a rebound. Portland had a five-point lead, 76-71.
"That's usually the time," said 76er Lloyd Free, the self-styled All-World, "when we started hating each other." Significantly, Free spoke in the past tense. These days Cunningham merely looks down his bench and calls in the Bomb Squad. As Portland spurted, out of the game came McGinnis, Collins and Dawkins. In went Steve Mix, Free and Jones. With 2:18 left, order had been restored and Philadelphia led 79-76.
At this point Ramsay studied the decaying situation on the floor and decided to gamble. He lifted Walton, willing to lose a little now in order to have his big man fresh for the fourth quarter. But the little turned out to be a lot. Or, as Mix would later say, "The blitzkrieg. The old Pork Chop Hill."
Erving hit a long jumper. Portland got the ball quickly down to Neal all alone under the basket for what players call a cripple. But Neal missed it. Mix had the rebound, rifled it to Free who hit Jones for a slam dunk that gave the Sixers a 83-76 lead. There was no stopping Free and Philly now. Two more lightning breaks including a genuine All-World sky dunk followed before the 76er surge finally ended at 16 straight points. By the time Ramsay got around to bringing Walton back, 1:20 into the fourth period, the Sixers had outscored the Blazers 25-4 in less than five minutes.
Philadelphia continued to pour it on in the perfunctory fourth quarter, out-scoring Portland 20-2 off the fast break alone, and cruising home with a 122-100 victory.
Cunningham, now sounding more like a coach than a TV man, said, "It sure was more than I expected," while McGinnis (24 points, 50% shooting) emitted platitudes about love and togetherness. Free (17 points, seven assists) ran around shouting to his teammates, "Wasn't I super, George? Wasn't I super, Doc?" Erving, icepacks on knees, took the whole thing in stride. "No surprise," he said. "Satisfying, of course, but just another win."
Down the hall Portland's Lucas said, "What did it prove? Have they got the best record?"
Philadelphia didn't and it was, after all, only one game. But it was a game the Sixers had owed their fans and themselves for quite a while, and they finally paid the debt.