Bloggin' to the Oldies: A Rare and Different Tune
Time to turn back the clock once again with “Bloggin’ to the Oldies.” In this post, I’ll be looking at Game 6 of the 1977 Finals between the Portland TrailBlazers and Philadelphia 76ers. Some general background: This Blazers team has the same basic makeup as that described in David Halberstam’s Breaks of the Game, with Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, and Lionel Hollins as the main pieces. The Sixers had one major star in Dr. J, although some other recognizable names like George McGinnis, Lloyd Free, Henry Bibby, and Doug Collins contribute, too. As for this particular game, the Blazers won in the final minute to close out the series. Walton rocked the box score with 20 points, 23 boards, eight blocks, and seven assists on his way to the Finals MVP award.
Although I’m now a Stanford guy, I was brought up a diehard UCLA fan, so watching Walton in his prime has been something I’ve wanted to do for quite a while. This game obviously provided me with that chance, and I must say that the unreal stat line above doesn’t tell the whole story. The points, rebounds, and blocks explain those aspects of Walton well enough—he’s a franchise center, and franchise centers control the paint—yet the passing is another story. Walton’s amazing passing abilities have been discussed before, but the centers of today so rarely make outstanding passes that Walton’s ability needs to be talked about in some detail. His ability to find cutters out of the post resembles that of Shaq (a tremendously underrated passer), except Walton did it much more often. At times, it looks like Walton passed based on instinct alone, although the rewatching plays on the DVR uncovers brief moments of recognition. Additionally, Walton fires outlet passes up the court faster than anyone around now, although everyone says that Wes Unseld topped him in the that regard.
Unfortunately, there’s no one currently in the NBA with the same kind of passing ability. However, Kevin Love, an incoming freshman at Walton’s alma mater, is said to possess freakish court vision for someone his size (6-9, 260 according to most lists, although word has it he dropped some weight). Anyone who watches UCLA regularly knows that—when they choose to do so—they run out on the break faster than anyone else in the Pac-10 (if not the country), so adding a phenomenal outlet passer can only help matters. Love’s skills become more intriguing when one watches the way the Blazers’ secondary players feed off of Walton’s versatility. Bottom line: I’m now officially scared shitless of UCLA next year, but I can’t wait to watch them.
I don’t want to single out Walton as the only terrific passer on the 77 Blazers, because every other regular made a few great dishes in transition or to a cutter from the wing or post. In theory, this team should be one of the most exciting teams ever: five guys, acting as a whole, throwing each other the ball simply because the other player had a great chance to score. Yet something about the non-Walton players constantly passing to cutters in the half court makes the whole operation seem rather systematic; I can only watch a wing pass to a man cutting through the lane so many times. I don’t mean to suggest that the Blazers were boring, or even less-than-exciting, but calling them one of the most exciting teams ever neglects the most important aspect of an exciting athlete: namely, that he does things we’ve never seen before.
The relative regularness of the secondary players in this game (apart from McGinnis, Lucas, and Hollins, who I’m sure I’d appreciate more if I watched multiple games) partly explains the relative rut the NBA found itself in before Magic and Bird burst onto the scene a few years later. Simply put, watching this game felt a lot like watching a college game, right down to the fans rushing the court at the end of the game. Outside of Walton and Dr. J, there was nothing particularly otherworldly about this game. When you get right down to it, that’s what makes the NBA as interesting as it is.
Random thoughts on the game: I feel stupid for not talking about Dr. J in greater detail in the main body of this post, particularly because he scored 40 points in the game. I must confess that I focused most of my attention on the Blazers during this game because of my Walton/UCLA connection. Honestly, when I saw that Dr. J had 40 I was pretty astonished. One obvious thing about his game is that he would still be a star today: the man rises faster than almost everyone playing now. … This game only makes me more confident in my earlier assertion that the NBA would have needed to introduce the three-point line if only to make avoid the clutter that comes with more athletic players. Even at this relatively early juncture in the athleticism boom of the modern era, players seemed to have less space to operate. … Nice to know that Brent Musburger has always been an atrocious announcer. Some of his worst moments: continually hyping the final round of the Kemper Open, as if it were a more important event than the deciding game of the NBA Finals; talking about the volume of the Portland crowd so much that viewers, who couldn’t hear the fans through the shoddy 70s audio equipment, must have thought he was exaggerating in order to make the game seem more exciting; and, worst of all, saying that the Blazers had the game won throughout the last two minutes even though it was usually a two-or-three-possession game. … Lloyd Free jumped unnaturally high on his shots. … In the first few possessions, Lucas trampled a few players, got tangled on the ground with Bibby for a few seconds, and knocked a player into a ref. … Jake Shuttlesworth ripped off his entire look from Dr. J. ... Someone needs to reprint Breaks of the Game.