Cinderella stories aren’t very common in the NBA, but the 1977 Portland Trailblazers certainly qualified. This was a franchise that not even had a winning season since its founding in 1971. With a new head coach in Jack Ramsay, and two bright young stars in Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas, the Blazers not only got that winning season, they won an improbable NBA title.
Walton had been part of John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty and at age 24, had become one of the best young players in the NBA. Walton averaged 19 ppg in 1977 and his 14 rebounds per game were the league’s best.
He was also a brilliant passer for a big man and a 1st-team All-NBA defender. Lucas, also 24-years-old, was an enforcer and he averaged 20 points/11 rebounds per night.
The backcourt was anchored by Lionel Hollins, a future NBA head coach, and the 23-year-old Hollins averaged 15 ppg while running the offense. Dave Twardzik, a smallish, but aggressive young guard was another double-digit scorer in the backcourt and Bob Goss was the small forward.
This young team was coming on by playoff time, closing the regular season with six straight wins and finishing 49-33.
Portland finished behind the Los Angeles Lakers in the Pacific Division and the structure of the NBA at this time had each conference split into two divisions, with six teams per conference making the playoffs. The two division winners got byes, while the other four teams played in a best-of-three “mini-series.” The Blazers’ first playoff appearance would begin with the Chicago Bulls, then in the West.
Blazers-Bulls featured a battle of the frontcourts, as Chicago was also led by two good interior players, Mickey Johnson and Artis Gilmore. Portland was the #3 seed and opened at home, with Lucas getting 29 points to key a 96-83 win. The Blazers dropped a close 107-104 decision in Game 2, unable to stop Johnson, Gilmore and shooting guard Wilbur Holland.
But when the series came back home, the Blazers reasserted themselves. Even with Johnson going off for 34 points, Portland’s balance was too much. Gross led all scorers with 26 and all five starters were in double figures.
If we fast-forward the clock 15 years, the next Portland-Chicago series wouldn’t go as well for the folks from the Pacific Northwest, with the 1992 NBA Finals remembered for Michael Jordan’s rain of three-pointers and his shrug for the TV cameras. But in 1977, Portland won the finale 106-98 and got a chance to face the Midwest Division champion Denver Nuggets.
It was a rematch of sorts for Walton. The Nuggets’ best player was David Thompson, who played his college ball at N.C. State. Three years earlier, Thompson’s Wolfpack beat Walton’s Bruins in a historic Final Four game that ended UCLA’s run of eight straight titles. It was a game that Walton openly admitted to losing sleep over years after the fact. He would have no such problems with this series.
Gross was the key to the first game. As Walton and Lucas fought Thompson and Dan Issel to a draw down low, it was Gross who stepped up with 18 points and was the difference-marker in a 101-100 win that stole homecourt advantage and set the tone for the series. Even though Denver took the second game 121-110 by controlling the fourth quarter, Portland had done what they needed to do in the series’ opening stanza.
Thompson went off for 40 points in Game 3, but the parlay of Lucas and Walton, who combined for 53, overcame it and the Blazers won Game 3 110-106. In the fourth game, the Portland defense stepped up and contained both Thompson and Issel. It was close into the fourth quarter, but the Blazers finally nudged out to a 105-96 win.
Walton struggled in Game 5, with only 15 points and Portland lost in overtime. Even here though, you could see how this young team was coming in. Here they were, on the road, against a presumably superior team (based on regular season record anyway) with a comfortable series cushion, and yet they pushed it to OT with one of their best players struggling.
After that, it’s no surprise to learn that Portland dominated Game 6 back at home, jumping out to a 33-16 lead at the quarter and taking over. This game was most notable for the emergence of guard Johnny Davis. Forced into the lineup by an ankle injury to Twardzik, Davis knocked down 25 points in the clincher.
Twardzik would miss the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers and that was the least of Portland’s problems. The biggest problem was that a 29-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a dominant season, averaging 26/13 per game and winning the MVP award. He was joined by 32-year-old Cazzie Russell at small forward, a 16 ppg scorer, and Lucius Allen running the show. It looked like it was the Lakers’ time to get back on top.
But with Portland coming together, they had more depth and it showed immediately in the first two games at the L.A. Forum. Kareem went for a combined 70 points in the two games, but Portland won both with an array of contributors. Lucas had 28 in Game 1, while Walton had 22, a 121-109 win that the Blazers led by eighteen at the half.
Hollins had a combined 56 points in the two games. Davis chipped in 20 in the Game 1 win, while reserve Herm Gilliam knocked down 24 in Game 2, a 99-97 nailbiter.
The games were close when the series went north up the Pacific Coast, but the amazing Portland run continued. Walton and Lucas each had 22 and Kareem started to run out of steam in Game 3, a 102-97 Blazer victory. The MVP came back strong with a 30-point showing in Game 4, but destiny was taking over for the Blazers.
Davis stepped up again in a clinching game, this time with 21 points, as he supplemented the work of the big men. Portland won 105-101 and was going to the NBA Finals.
If Kareem was the league’s biggest star, Philadelphia 76ers small forward Julius Erving wasn’t far behind. He was joined by another prolific forward in George McGinnis and a guard in Doug Collins whose coaching and broadcasting career has continued to this day. The Sixers had held serve as the top seed in the East and were expected to end Portland’s Cinderella run.
The first two games made it look like Philadelphia would do exactly that. Portland couldn’t contain Erving and Collins in a four-point Game 1 loss. Then the Blazers were embarrassed for the first time in the playoffs, being blown out in the second quarter of Game 2 and losing 107-89. But when the series went west, the entire dynamic changed.
Walton played a brilliant all-around game in Game 3, with 20 points/18 rebounds/9 assists, while Lucas scored 27. The Blazers went off for 42 points in the fourth quarter alone, pulling away to a 129-107 win. They climbed back into the series in Game 4, blowing it open in the third quarter. Hollins scored 25 while Lucas had 24 in a 130-98 win.
Portland still had to win two out of three, and would have to find a way to get one in the old Philadelphia Spectrum. In an even bigger surprise than the previous two games, the Blazers dominated much of Game 5. Walton had an astonishing 24 rebounds, having his way with McGinnis and Sixer center Caldwell Jones down low. Lucas posted a 20/11 night, while Gross knocked down 25. Portland led as much as 91-69 and then held off a late Sixer rally to win 110-104.
The phenomena of “Blazermania” was sweeping the Pacific Northwest and the team had a chance to clinch a championship in front of their home fans. Erving came at them with everything he had, pouring in 40 points in Game 6, while McGinnis scored 28. But Walton was simply extraordinary. He scored 20 points, hauled in 23 more rebounds, dished seven assists and blocked eight shots. It was one of the singularly great performances in NBA Finals history and it was augmented by 24 from Gross and 20 from Hollins. Portland won 109-107.
In today’s NBA, you’re supposed to lose in the playoffs before you win. You’re supposed to have veterans. And you’re not supposed to beat the marquee stars. The 1977 Portland Trailblazers took those rules, stomped on them and burned them to ashes, in a most improbable ride to a championship.