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One For The Books: The Blazers Ride 'The Train' To Victory

Wayne Thompson, the original beat-writer for the Portland Trail Blazers takes the fans back to an important point in team history and brings that game back to life with his "One For The Books" articles, which go beyond the box score. This installment of "One For The Books" was taken from the August 2002 issue of Rip City Magazine where Wayne relives not only Lionel Hollins' greatest game as a Trail Blazer but the turning point of the 1977 championship-winning season. Without further ado, enjoy "The Trail Blazers Ride 'The Train' To Victory"

By Wayne Thompson

In most wars, the turning points—Waterloo, Gettysburg, Normandy, Argonne Forest, San Juan Hill—are fairly obvious.

No so, however, in the National Basketball Association wars.

For example, what was the turning point in the Trail Blazers’ championship season? Was it when they hired Jack Ramsay? When they drafted Maurice Lucas from the ABA? When they swept the Lakers in the playoffs?

Take a number.

Not even the best war historians who analyze the battles and tell the rest of us about the turning points would be able to put a finger on Portland’s turning point that season.

Put the question another way: When did the 1976-77 Blazers start believing they could be a contender for a championship?

How about Feb. 22, 1977.

That was the day a healthy Bill Walton returned to the lineup after missing 10 games with an Achilles’ tendon injury.

That was the day the Blazers, losers of six of their last seven games and fading fast in the Pacific Division standings, played the defending world champion Boston Celtics in the Memorial Coliseum.

That was the day that Lionel “The Train” Hollins played the greatest game of his young life, scoring a career-high 43 points in a miraculous display of shooting from all sectors of the court.

That was the day that the Blazers proved to themselves that they could beat the best teams in the NBA in close games.

And that was the day snow fell at Timberline—the beginning of the end of the worst drought of Oregon’s 20th century.

In what coach Jack Ramsay described as the best overall game Portland had played all season, the Blazers edged the Celtics, 113-111, largely on the heroics of Hollins, Walton, Lucas, Johnny Davis and Larry Steele.

As The Oregonian’s Blazers beat writer Bob Robinson wrote, “Bill Walton was back and Lionel Hollins went on a scoring rampage... Could this be the start of something grand?”

The Blazers, of course, answered that question a week later by beating the talented Philadelphia 76ers, 108-107 to clinch the first playoff berth in team history.

The victory over the Celtics, which broke a three-game home court losing streak for the Blazers, was also an historic one, too, because it gave them their first ever series victory over Boston.

Portland had beaten the Atlantic Division’s second-place Celtics twice in January. In this game, Boston was out for revenge.

“They put a real licking on us last month,” moaned Boston Coach Tom Heinsohn, :And we were determined to make them pay. But, I had no idea Lionel Hollins could shoot like that.”

Hollins set a team record with 20 field goals, connecting on 20 of 31 from the floor and 3 of 4 from the foul line.

His performance featured a pair of driving shots, one over John Havlicek and the other over Jo Jo White. He connected from all angles, some of them on nifty backdoor assists from Walton, and had 23 points in the first half as Portland built a 62-51 lead.

“The shots just started to go in for me and I felt the adrenaline coming on,” Hollins said afterwards. “I had the feeling I could take my man at any time.”

What made Hollins’ performance even more remarkable was the fact that he was wearing a protective fiberglass mask to protect a forehead injury suffered a half dozen games earlier.

Even though the mask was due to come off later that week, Hollins wasn’t sure he wanted to part with it. “Hey, I may wear this mask for the rest of my career. It worked for the Lone Ranger.”

Jack Ramsay wasn’t surprised, however, with Hollins’ point explosion.

“When he is shooting like that, he’s about impossible to stop. He has explosive drive and first-step quickness that is hard for opponents to match up with.”

Walton’s return helped. He played only 22 minutes in this game, scoring just four points. But, he had nine rebounds and five assists and, according to Boston center Dave Cowens, Walton was really the difference in the game, Hollins’ scoring notwithstanding.

“The main thing he was able to do in those 22 minutes was come back from a long layoff and rebound in a tight situation,” Cowens said.

“We didn’t expect anything like that from Hollins,” Cowens added, “but their offense was much more efficient with Walton in there. It just gave Portland much greater mobility inside.”

Walton started all four quarters, and then returned to the Blazer lineup with 3:31 left and the Blazers leading, 104-100. That paid quick dividends because Walton started a Blazer fast beak and grabbed off two big rebounds in the final 43 seconds to thwart a serious Celtics’ rally.

Except for a 2-0 deficit, the Blazers led virtually all the way, but the Celtics didn’t fold. Havlicek, who finished with 33 points and Cowens led them back from a 15-point third quarter deficit, aided, in part, by some shaky Blazer free throw shooting.

Cowens’ three-point play, with 1:44 left, pulled the Celtics into a 109-109 tie. Portland’s Lucas and Steele then came through with pivotal baskets to put it away. It was a Lucas jumper from the side with 1:05 left following a steal by Dave Twardzik that put the Blazers ahead to stay.

Moments later, Steele sank a set shot from the corner with 24 seconds left to give Portland a 113-109 lead. Steele’s shot was lucky. It bounced up and down twice on the rim before falling through.

Larry didn’t lie about it. “I knew I hadn’t shot it well, but I thought it had a chance,” he said. “This was one of those nights that the shot that felt good missed and the ones that felt not so good went in. Those kind of nights are not fun.”

Even though trailing by four points and watching Walton snare a miss by Cowens with just 15 seconds left on the clock, the Celtics weren’t done. Havlicek stepped into a passing lane and intercepted a pass by Twardzik, was fouled and same both free throws to make it 113-111, Blazers.

The Celtics promptly fouled Walton with nine seconds left, but the Blazer red head, still rusty from inaction, missed all three free throws to give Boston a final chance for a tie.

Boston set up a play for Havlicek, but former Blazer Sidney Wicks, who scored 14 points in the game against his former maters, blew his assignment and wound up taking a desperation 25-footer that bounced off the rim.

“I was open,” said a disappointed Havlicek. “But, hey, give Portland credit. They hit the shots they had to hit down the stretch and Hollins was on fire in this game. He’s a handful to guard, especially when he has his outside jumper going.”

Not all Blazer fans had learned to love Lionel Hollins’ jump shot, which, during his rookie season in 1975-76, had been the model of inconsistency (42 percent). There had been many games in which fans booed the 6-foot-3 former Arizona State guard for missing what might have been game-clinching shots.

Indeed, of all of the beloved Blazers of this magical season, Hollins, until this night, was the least popular. Some of the Oregon fans were still miffed that the Blazers chose him in the 1975 NBA draft over the popular Ron Lee of Oregon. Hollins and Lee had been PAC-10 rivals for three seasons, and there was much debate in Rip City about which player was best. Hollins proved over a career that he clearly was the right choice.

On this night, the fans warmed to Hollins’ point barrage in the win over Boston. After the game, Walton acknowledged Hollins’ dissenters when he said, “The way Train shot the ball tonight, I don’t think the fans will boo him anymore.”

Hollins said he was surprised by his point total. which was 15 points better than his prior NBA high. “I got caught up in this game. I know I was shooting well, but when they announced my total (35 points) at the end of the third quarter, I couldn’t believe it.”

Individual exploits aside, Ramsay saw the victory over the Celtics as a turning point for the season. The Blazers, up to then, were just 4-8 in games decided by three points or less. They had struggled to execute in close games down the stretch and were plagued by turnovers in pressure situations.

Against Boston, the Blazers made just nine turnovers—the fewest they had made in any game since the 1974-75 season.

“We’re taking care of the ball; we’re taking care of business,” Ramsay said. “The drought around here may be ending.”

The same thing was happening outside Memorial Coliseum. As the players drove home, they heard on their car radios that the first major snow of the season had dumped 21 inches on Mt. Hood.

It was a good night for turning points.
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