Even before the Portland Trail Blazers and the Seattle Super Sonics began their best-of-seven quarterfinal series to determine which team would survive to go on in the NBA playoffs, a lot of questions were bouncing around out there in Drizzle world.
For instance, was Portland's Bill Walton more crippled in a) his left foot b) his right foot or c) his monologues to the press? Was Seattle's Lenny Wilkens some kind of a) miracle worker b) faith healer ore) just plain lucky?
By the end of the week—after the teams had split the first two games in Portland and the upstart Sonics had whipped the Blue Cross Blazers back at home on Sunday afternoon—only one of the questions had been answered, but it was a terribly important one: all the kumquat juice in the world could not save Bill Walton from reinjuring himself, having his left ankle wrapped in a cast and missing the rest of the playoffs.
When we last unfurled the umbrellas, the Sonics had become the biggest surprise in the NBA after Wilkens took over as coach and the team magically produced 42 victories in 60 regular-season games. With Seattle's tri-pronged back-court of Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson and Fred Brown outscoring opposing guards by a whopping 154 points to 89, the team had dispatched the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs and seemed on the verge of one of those sprees of emotion and confidence that unpredictably seem to energize some fortunate NBA contender at this time every year; e.g., Phoenix in 1976, Portland in 1977.
Still, the Sonics had only limited playoff experience, and there was some doubt whether the team had poise enough to hold up inside the noisy jaws of Blazer-mania. This was of grave concern, especially since on their last trip to Oregon, the Sonics had lost by blowing a 16-point lead. "The crowd intimidated us," Wilkens admitted.
As the series began, most of what passed as a league-record ticket-buying throng of 25,995 (the usual 12,666 sellout in Memorial Coliseum plus 13,329 more at five closed-circuit TV sites across the state) wondered how the injured and infirm world champions would respond after a nine-day layoff.
Forward Bob Gross was still on crutches with a broken ankle, but Lucas, Lloyd Neal and Larry Steele all had recovered enough to play, while Walton would be starting at center for the first time in 49 days. The tall redhead began the evening by unloading juice crates from his pickup truck in the Coliseum parking lot. After a tumultuous welcome from his disciples, Walton unloaded on the Sonics, hitting his first five shots and snatching eight rebounds as the Blazers took a 53-46 halftime lead. For a while all seemed peachy in fruit and vegetable land. But it wasn't.
What was really happening was that Walton was grabbing the ball at the defensive end, firing out to begin the fearsome Blazer fast break, then hobbling up-court, where his teammates were hanging around twiddling thumbs and waiting for him to arrive before starting their quick-cutting patterns. When Walton finally got there, the Sonics had beaten the Blazers to their spots, clogged the passing lanes and disrupted Portland's entire offensive program.
This led to interceptions, tipped balls and breakaways, one of which the fleet Williams converted as Walton—at midcourt—attempted to lope after him, then just stopped and shook his head in disgust.
Seattle Center Marvin Webster and the lanky rookie Forward Jack Sikma obviously had been waiting to see just how mobile Walton was; by halftime they had found out. "He was nowhere near 100%, 'bout 70 I'd say," said Webster. "Me and Jack were going to take it to him."
The twin towers of the Seattle front line, who had combined for only 13 points and six rebounds in the first half, thoroughly wasted Walton and Lucas in the second, ganging up for 29 points and 14 rebounds. Webster was to finish with 24 points while Sikma embarrassed Lucas 18 points to eight.
When Walton was replaced by Tom Owens late in the third quarter, Portland led by three points. By the time Walton returned, the champions were behind by eight, and immediately Webster blocked two consecutive Walton hooks, spreading chalk dust through his counterpart's red hair. Meanwhile Lionel Hollins and Lucas had 20 misses in 27 tries—and Seattle had an easier-than-it-sounds 104-95 victory.
In addition to their physical woes, the Blazers appeared to be confused, a condition not improved by Coach Jack Ramsay's grim though inaccurate dig at the Sonics. "A lot of teams would have beaten us in the first game," said Ramsay. "Maybe every team." It was Portland's first home playoff loss ever—the team won 10 straight there last year. The Blazers' subsequent two days of practice were equally flat.
Walton did not run at all as he rested up for Game Two by polishing his blue Falcon racing bike in the locker room and avoiding the media. "I'm fine," the Portland star would reply to all queries. Or "Ask the coach." Or "Got to go now." Or "You want some juice?"
For his part, Wilkens—a quiet chap with a disconcertingly beatific countenance—was in a unique position. He had coached the Blazers during Walton's first two years, when the big man was chronically injured, and he had drafted both Gross and Hollins before being fired. "I'm not a vindictive person," Wilkens said before the second game. "I rooted for the Blazers last year."
At one point last Friday night, it seemed that time had about expired for the Blazers this year. Williams scored 21 points over and around Johnny Davis, and Seattle took a 49-40 lead at intermission. Walton again had started strongly, scoring four quick baskets, but with about 4½ minutes to go in the first half he went up to block a Sikma jump shot and came down all twisted and wrong. For the next few minutes he couldn't even wobble anymore. "Get the butazolidin," somebody said as Walton dragged himself off the court for what proved to be the final time in 1978.
But the Blazers are strong-willed, prideful and admirably courageous. Davis redeemed himself with 13 third-quarter points; replacing Walton, the fired-up Owens beat Webster time and again to the glass; and Lucas, displaying some savage, overplaying defense, which must have made Sikma wish he was back on the farm at Illinois Wesleyan, turned the tables on the rookie, 19-8 in points, 14-9 in rebounds.
Even so, the Sonics had a four-point lead, 91-87, with 3:25 remaining and should have been able to hold on to win. But Hollins and Lucas hit key jumpers down the stretch and Portland survived 96-93.
Even before hearing Saturday afternoon's terrible news—Walton had fractured a bone in his left ankle—Lucas said, "We wish Bill could play, but the game goes on. Webster is playing the best of his life, but can he stay psyched against Tom Owens? We can beat these guys without Bill."
That did not seem likely. Not after Webster cleaned off all the backboards; after John Johnson broke out of his series-long shooting slump (three for 17) and began pumping in his funny line-drive shots; after the Sonics out-rebounded the Blazers by an astounding 71-40 to run away and win Game Three, 99-84.
It didn't even matter that Seattle shot only 34%. With Walton away, the Sonics could fly—all over the rims. Webster collected 23 rebounds and Paul Silas replaced Sikma to add 13 more, in addition to getting off a few grizzly-bear hook shots. Johnson and Brown took care of the scoring, JJ lining in nine baskets in the second half while the normally Downtown Brown roved up and cross-town as well for 18 points of his own.
Wilkens was asked if this or any other subsequent Seattle victory would be diminished by the absence of Walton.
"Hey, Portland plays too well without him to feel like that," he said. "The thing is to get there and to win. Five years from now nobody's going to remember who played or who didn't. Just who won."
But, hey, Lenny, what about five weeks from now?