Today is our final SBNation-NBA group project and it's a doozy! Each site is recounting the greatest comeback in their team's history.
Trail Blazer fans have plenty of comebacks to choose from. We remember Duckworth walking down the tunnel against San Antonio in '90, 6 points in 13 seconds against Chicago in '78, Kermit to Billy Ray at the buzzer in '80. Who could forget Brandon Roy's last great game as a Blazer versus Dallas in the 2011 first round? And if fate had been just a wee bit kinder the 2000 Western Conference Finals in which the Blazers surged back after being down 1-3 to the Lakers would have made, and maybe topped, the list.
As things lie, though, only one comeback in Trail Blazers history can properly be termed "The Greatest".
The 1976-77 Portland Trail Blazers were already a Cinderella Story before they hit the NBA Finals. The franchise had been formed only 7 years earlier. The world was smaller then, without global communication. Most people still regarded OH-ree-gone as a place where people lived in log cabins and bears walked the streets. Most people couldn't have located Portland on a map. Fewer still would find any reason to try.
You can forgive most people for snoozing through the upstart Blazers' first-round victory against the Chicago Bulls that year. Portland's 6-game victory against the Denver Nuggets was no more arresting. The reaction of the casual observer would have been, "Who played who now?" It should be noted that this was the case even inside the confines of the state. The Blazers had a hardcore following from their inception, but with no games on television that group was confined to a few tens of thousands.
That began to change as the Blazers swept Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the mighty (or at least mighty famous) Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals that year. Yup. You read that right. "Swept the Lakers." It happened. Bill Walton's majestic play and the infernal point-scoring of Maurice Lucas and Lionel Hollins put the Lakers on ice and created buzz everywhere the CBS network could reach. (Even in backwards Orygun that was almost every home, except for six guys in a hippie commune outside of Bandon and one who lived on the north side of not-yet-erupted Mt. St. Helens.) All of a sudden Cinderella became a national story and a mega-sensation locally. People who had never watched an NBA game in their lives tuned in to see if the Blazers could do it. The first, lusty cries of Blazermania echoed across the landscape. Portland fans were prepared to scream louder yet if the boys could pull it off. The whole town became a powder keg, ready to explode into delirium.
Unfortunately Portland's opponents in the 1977 NBA Finals had other ideas. The Philadelphia 76'ers boasted an awesome collection of talent. Julius "Dr. J" Erving was the Michael Jordan of his era. Everything he did on the court looked magical and his fame transcended the sport. Forward George McGinnis scored the same 22 per game as the good Doctor did. Guards included Olympian and future coach Doug Collins (18 per game), one-on-one wizard World B. Free (16 per game) plus 2 more future head coaches in Mike Dunleavy and Fred Carter. Kobe Bryant's dad played on that team as did Mike Bibby's. Centers included defensive impresario Caldwell Jones (in the early stages of a distinguished 17-year career) and future King of the Funky-Dunk Darryl Dawkins. When this team flew cross-country astronomers from coast to coast complained about the light pollution. They were stacked.
As many predicted would happen, the relatively-unknown Blazers ran into a buzzsaw during the first two games in Philly. Portland committed a litany of turnovers, fouled incessantly, got out-hustled, out-shot, out-doctored, and just plain outplayed. The Blazers lost 101-107 in Game 1 and suffered worse in Game 2, falling 89-107.
It was late in that second game that the hulking, 6'11" Dawkins got rough with Portland's slight-ish small forward, Bobby Gross. Dawkins' physique was ripped in an era before muscles were common. When he practically tossed Gross to the floor in a wrestling move and started swinging away it looked like a WWWF squash match. The pummeling would have provided the ultimate commentary on Philadelphia's dominance--physical and otherwise--but for Portland power forward Maurice Lucas. In the middle of that melee Lucas etched his name in Blazers lore forever. Three decades later he's not remembered for his 20 point, 10 rebound average as much as he's remembered for stepping in front of Dawkins and throwing an elbow smack upside his head. Philadelphia's young center reportedly smashed bathroom fixtures in Philly's locker room after the game in frustration. The Blazers lined up behind their Big Dog and proceeded to smash the 76'ers.
Philadelphia scored the same 107 in Game 3 as they had in each of the previous games. The Blazers, buoyed by a rabid home crowd and their collective decision neither to take crap nor play like it, scored 129. They mopped the floor with the Sixers again in Game 4, 130-98.
Game 5 back in Philly was the critical test. If Portland could only win home games they'd end up one victory short of a title. But the Blazers seized the moment and the game through superior rebounding and putting 6 players in double figures...led by that same unheralded (and now bruised) Bobby Gross who scored 25 on Dawkins and company that night.
Many folks, including everybody in the state of Oregon, anticipated a clinching victory for the Blazers at home in Game 6. Erving made that difficult with 40 points. McGinnis added 28. Down 108-100 with 2:30 left, Philly put on a majestic run and climbed within 2 points, 109-107. The clock neared zero. The Sixers had the ball for the final possession. But McGinnis missed a 15-footer and Walton grabbed his 23rd and final rebound of the contest, firing it out to teammate Johnny Davis who threw the ball in the air as the clock expired. After being down 0-2 and left for dead, labeled pretenders against a travelling All-Star squad, the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers were Champions of the World.
One elbow and plenty of elbow grease had spurred the greatest comeback in franchise history. Blazers fans have never forgotten it.
Be sure and discuss this or other memorable Blazer comebacks in the comments below. Click around SBN today as well to hear the stories from other franchises. Just use the "NBA" tab at the top of the main page and surf to your heart's content!