1975: Warriors versus Bullets (Barry’s Bay Area Upset)

Background

After losing in the 1967 NBA Finals, the Warriors would lose twice more (1968, 1973) in the conference finals to the Los Angeles Lakers and change their name from San Francisco to the Golden State Warriors in 1971. Before the 1975 season, the team traded franchise center Nate Thurmond to the Chicago Bulls for Clifford Ray, making All-Star Rick Barry the cornerstone of the offense. The Warriors raced out to a conference-best 48 wins in 1975, claiming the number one seed in the West and earning Keith Wilkes Rookie of the Year honors. In the playoffs, Golden State defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in a six-game conference semifinals. In the Western Conference Finals, facing Thurmond and the Bulls, the Warriors trailed the series 3-2 but forced a deciding game seven with a convincing road victory. Back at home, Golden State won by a slim four-point margin to advance to the franchise’s first NBA Finals in nine years.

Following their four-game sweep at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1971 NBA Finals, the Bullets made key lineup changes by acquiring small forward Mike Riordan from the New York Knicks for flashy guard Earl Monroe and rebounding power forward Elvin Hayes from the Houston Rockets for starter Jack Marin. In 1975, having relocated to Washington, the team won 60 games in the regular season and entered the playoffs as the number two seed by virtue of losing a tiebreaker to the Boston Celtics. Facing league MVP Bob McAdoo and the Buffalo Braves in the conference semifinals, the Bullets dropped the opener at home but won two straight to go up 2-1 before alternating victories over the final four games to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Facing the top-seeded and defending champion Celtics, Washington stole the opener on the road and won all three games at home to advance in six games to their second NBA Finals of the decade.

Lineups

The Warriors starting back court was comprised of point guard Butch Beard and shooting guard Charles Johnson. Rick Barry led the league in steals as the starting small forward in the front court alongside rookie Keith Wilkes at power forward and newly acquired center Clifford Ray.

Off the bench, veteran Phil Smith served as Beard’s primary backup at point guard, and Jeff Mullins functioned as the first player off the bench on the perimeter. Derrek Dickey provided depth up front at forward, and George Johnson spelled Ray at center. Charles Dudley, Bill Bridges, and Steve Bracey played sparingly in the NBA Finals.

NBA assists leader Kevin Porter started for the Bullets in at point guard in the back court alongside All-Star shooting guard Phil Chenier. Mike Riordan earned the starting small forward spot alongside newly acquired Elvin Hayes at power forward and former league MVP Wes Unseld at center.

Washington utilized Clem Haskins off the bench as the primary backup at guard. Nick Weatherspoon provided depth as the first small forward off the bench, while Truck Robinson functioned as the third big man on the roster. Dick Gibbs, Tom Kozelko, and Dennis DuVal rarely played in the championship series.

Game One: Warriors 101, Bullets 95

The favored Bullets came out hot in game one and build a 14-point lead by halftime thanks to Porter’s playmaking and Hayes’ scoring. Despite struggling in the first half, Barry came alive in the third quarter as the Warriors made their charge. Phil Smith contributed a clutch 20 points off the bench as Golden State suffocated Washington on offense and closed to within one point at the end of the third. The Warriors grabbed control in the final period and clinched the win after a late turnaround jumper from Barry that gave him 24 points for the game. Ray pulled down a monster 16 rebounds as Golden State fended off double-doubles from Hayes and Unseld and 20 points from Chenier in the opener.

Game Two: Bullets 91, Warriors 92

Unable to play at their homecourt of Oakland Coliseum Arena, the Warriors were forced to play game two at the unfamiliar Cow Palace nearby. The Bullets took advantage and jumped out to a nine-point lead after the first quarter. Golden State weathered the storm, however, and rallied behind Barry’s 36 points to take a one-point lead in the closing seconds. Washington had a chance to win the game on the final possession but missed both shots and now faced a 2-0 series deficit. Chenier scored 30 to lead the Bullets, alongside 21 from Riordan and 15 from Elvin Hayes. Wilkes and Johnson combined for 27 in support of Barry.

Game Three: Bullets 101, Warriors 109

Again at the Cow Palace, the Warriors took an early lead thanks to Barry’s 19 first quarter points and led by two after the half, despite Hayes’ 17-point outburst in the first two periods. Golden State pulled ahead with a 15-6 run in the third and cruised in the fourth quarter to their third straight victory. Barry finished with a monster 38 points and 6 assists, complemented by 42 bench points. Hayes, Chenier, and Porter combined for 62 points but Washington now faced eliminated down 3-0.

Game Four: Warriors 96, Bullets 95

The Bullets came out hot again and led by 10 after the first quarter, and physical play by Mike Riordan caused Warriors’ coach Al Attles to be ejected after a scuffle in the opening half. Washington continued to lead throughout the game, but Golden State fought back to take the lead off a lay-up from Beard late in the fourth. After a series of free throws, the final buzzer sounded with the Warriors emerging as champions. The Golden State starters combined for 64 points to offset Washington’s 87, and Barry was fittingly named Finals MVP

Aftermath

The Warriors would return their championship squad in 1976 and won a conference-best 59 games to win their division. After a six-game series victory over the Detroit Pistons, Golden State faced the surprising Phoenix Suns to advance to the NBA Finals. The Suns shocked the Warriors in seven games, and Golden State wouldn’t reach a championship series again for 40 years.

Washington won 48 games the next season but lost in the playoffs in a seven-game series to the Cleveland Cavaliers. After two sweeps in the NBA Finals in the decade, the Bullets finally broke through in 1978 by winning the championship in seven games over the Seattle SuperSonics, the team’s first championship in three tries during the 1970s.

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