1977: Trailblazers versus 76ers (Bill Walton and Blazermania)

Background

The Trailblazers entered the league in 1970 and struggled in their first few seasons before hiring new head coach Jack Ramsay and acquiring Maurice Lucas during the dispersal draft that followed the ABA-NBA merger of 1976. Paired with 1974 top overall pick Bill Walton the two big men led Portland in 1977 to their first winning season with 49 regular season victories. Entering the playoffs as the three seed, the Trailblazers beat the Chicago Bulls in a three-game first round series and took down the Denver Nuggets in six after stealing the opener on the road and winning all three games at home. In the Western Conference Finals, facing league MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland shocked the league by sweeping the top-seeded Lakers and reached the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

After trading away four-time MVP Wilt Chamberlain in 1968, the 76ers struggled to contend as they were repeatedly bounced in the first round or missed the playoffs entirely. In 1976, Philadelphia returned to relevance by acquiring ABA star Julius Erving from the New York Nets. Paired with former Indiana Pacers star George McGinnis, the 76ers reeled off 50 regular season wins and entered the playoffs as the number one seed in the East. In the playoffs, Philadelphia won a dramatic seven-game series over their rival Boston Celtics after Jo Jo White hit a game-winner in the opener. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the 76ers established an early 2-0 series lead over the Houston Rockets. After dropping game three on the road, Philadelphia won two of the next three games to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since their championship season of 1967.

Lineups

Portland’s back court was comprised of Lionel Hollins at point guard and Johnny Davis at shooting guard. Bob Gross started in the front court at small forward alongside All-Star power forward Maurice Lucas and future Hall-of-Famer and first time All-Star Bill Walton at center.

Off the bench, Dave Twardzik served as Hollins’ primary backup at point guard, and Herm Gilliam was the first reserve on the perimeter. Larry Steele and Corky Calhoun provided further depth on the wing and at forward, and Lloyd Neal functioned as the backup big man. Wally Walker and Robin Jones played sparingly in the NBA Finals.

For the 76ers, Henry Bibby served as the starting point guard alongside former number one overall pick Doug Collins at shooting guard. ABA champion Julius “The Doctor” Erving started at small forward in the front court with fellow ABA star George McGinnis at power forward and Caldwell Jones at center.

Philadelphia utilized World B. Free off the bench as the primary backup guard, and Steve Mix provided depth up front at forward. Darryl Dawkins served as the first big man off the bench, and Joe Bryant functioned as a fourth post player. Terry Furlow, Mike Dunleavy, and Harvey Catchings rarely played in the championship series.

Game One: Trailblazers 101, 76ers 107

Erving finished the first quarter off with a steal and break-away dunk before the buzzer, and the 76ers’ frenetic pace helped them take a slim lead into halftime. The Doctor dominated Portland in the fourth as Philadelphia pulled away. The Trailblazers closed to within two points late in the period, but the 76ers held on to take the opener. Erving scored 33 points to lead all scorers in addition to Collins’ 30. Walton led Portland with 28 points and 20 rebounds, but several key players fouled out including Lucas and Gross.

Game Two: Trailblazers 89, 76ers 107

Lucas came out hot for Portland with 10 points in the first quarter, but Philadelphia’s up-tempo offense established an 18-point lead after the first half and extended the advantage to as much as 23 in the fourth quarter of the 76ers blowout victory. A fight broke out midway through the final period that resulted in Dawkins and Lucas being ejected. Collins led all scorers with 27 points to go along with Erving’s relatively tame 20 as Philadelphia seized a commanding 2-0 series lead. Walton led Portland with 17 points as the Trailblazers returned home looking to get back in the series.

Game Three: 76ers 107, Trailblazers 129

Perhaps inspired by the game two skirmish, the Trailblazers jumped on the 76ers early and built a 13-point lead after the first quarter. Philadelphia climbed back to within a point in the second before Lucas hit two clutch shots to stem the tide. In the fourth quarter, Portland blew the game open after Walton converted two difficult alley-oops in a row, and the Trailblazers coasted to their first win of the series. Lucas led his team with 27 points in addition to Walton’s impressive 20/18/9. Erving and Collins combined for 49 points, but the 76ers now found themselves in a competitive series.

Game Four: 76ers 98, Trailblazers 130

The Trailblazers again started off hot, building a double-digit lead early in the first quarter. Led by Hollins and Lucas, Portland put the game out of reach with a 41-point third quarter as part of a second consecutive blowout victory. Erving led Philadelphia with 25 points, but the Trailblazers tied the series at two games apiece and firmly held the momentum with the series shifting back East for game five.

Game Five: Trailblazers 110, 76ers 104

Portland led early despite Erving’s 20 first half points. The Trailblazers again erupted in the third quarter with 40 points, pulling away after the 76ers rallied to within a single point. Philadelphia mounted a furious rally late in the fourth but came up short as Portland pulled to within a game of their first world championship. Doctor J led all scorers with 37 points alongside Collins’ 23, but the Trailblazers were buoyed by Gross and Lucas’ combined 45 points and Walton’s stellar defense.

Game Six: 76ers 107, Trailblazers 109

The Trailblazers tallied another 40-point quarter in the second to open up a large lead despite Erving’s 22 first half points–featuring two monster dunks first on Gross and then on Walton. The 76ers again rallied late in the fourth quarter to draw within two points with 18 seconds left, but McGinnis missed a game-tying jumper despite breaking out of his shooting slump with 28 points. Erving led all scorers with 40 points, but Walton controlled the game with 20 points, 23 rebounds, 7 assists, and 8 blocks to go along with Gross’ team-high 24 points. The win clinched Portland’s first championship in franchise history, and the UCLA center Walton was aptly named the Finals MVP.

Aftermath

Following their championship, the Trailblazers won 50 of their first 60 games in 1978–earning Walton the league MVP award–but the All-Star would struggle with injuries to finish the season and left Portland in 1979 due to issues with the team management. The franchise would struggle to contend in the 1980s until Clyde Drexler led the Trailblazers back to the NBA Finals in 1990.

The 76ers would win 55 games in 1978 en route to the number one seed in the East, but the season ended without a repeat Finals appearance as Philadelphia was upset by the Washington Bullets in a six-game Eastern Conference Finals. After missing the NBA Finals again in 1979, the 76ers would make it back to the championship series in 1980 with a different supporting cast surrounding Julius Erving.

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