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One For The Books: The Forgotten Playoff Series

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 April 2002 issue of Rip City Magazine where Wayne relives arguably Portland's toughest series en route to winning it all in 1977. Without further ado, enjoy "The Forgotten Playoff Series"

By Wayne Thompson

ON THE ROAD TO GLORY in the spring of 1977, the Trail Blazers had a very treacherous pit stop: The Chicago Bulls.

When all was said and written of Portland's 1977 dream season, its first round playoff conquest of the Bulls, arguably, was a defining moment on its journey to the championship.

"Our playoff run was full of shining moments," recalled league MVP Bill Walton. "But in some ways you could say Chicago was our toughest obstacle."

"The Bulls were playing their best basketball of the season," recalled Lionel Hollins. "Getting by them was a major hurdle."

"Winning that series gave us confidence we needed in the games to come," said Larry Steele.

"It was a good thing we had the home court advantage or the season might have ended for us right there," said Bobby Gross.

"That was a tough series on us because the matchups were just perfect for both teams," said Maurice Lucas. "Artis Gilmore (the 7-foot-2 Chicago center) was just too strong for Bill. He would back Bill down and there was little we could do with him."

With the three-game opening round series tied at one-game apiece, the Blazers faced a one-game elimination against a Bulls team that had won 20 of their final 24 regular season games. Over that same span, Portland's record was a so-so 14-10.

So it was Chicago -- not Portland or Philadelphia or Denver or Los Angeles or Boston or Golden State -- that was the hottest team in the league through the last month of the regular season.

It all came down to a nationally televised Sunday afternoon showdown in Memorial Coliseum for the right to advance to the Western Conference semifinals.

It was April 17, a sunny, 60-degree spring day in the Rose City. Early arriving Blazer fans were no doubt oblivious of the fact that Sweden, in continents and sports cultures far removed, had just beaten Canada, 8-5, to win the World Curling Championship. Curling, swirling, Blazer fans just knew that their team would leave no 40-pound stone unturned in this series finale against the Bulls.

Despite being fledgling upstarts to NBA playoff basketball, the Blazers started off strong. Ignited by Gross and Lucas and relentless defensive pressure, they built an 11-point halftime lead, feasting off Chicago turnovers to fuel their fast break.

This was a significant trend because Chicago was a rebounding Goliath that had shown in two prior games that it knew how to shut down the vaunted Blazer fast break.

Midway through the fourth quarter, the Blazers seemed on their way to a comfortable win. They had a 92-77 lead with 7:26 left, as the sellout crowd of 12,520 started chanting, "Bring on Denver."

Then it all started to collapse as the Blazers, plagued with foul trouble, started playing too conservatively.

In the next six minutes, the Bulls cut Portland's 15-point lead down to two as Dave Twardzik, Walton and Lucas all fouled out.

The entire season was up for grabs in the final 36 seconds after a jumper by veteran Jack Marin reduced Portland's lead to 100-98.

Mickey Johnson, a one-time Blazer draft choice who led all scorers in this game with 24 points, reserve guard John Mengelt and Marin led a remarkable Chicago rally that silenced the raucous Blazer crowd and gave Chicago renewed life.

After a timeout, the Blazers worked the clock and then set up a play for Hollins. Seldom-used Robin Jones played a pivotal role. Replacing Walton, who had fouled out minutes earlier, Jones set a screen on Mengelt, setting Hollins free for a 20-foot jumper. A money shooter through most of his career, Hollins swished the shot from the top of the key with 15 seconds left.

It was the dagger that killed the Bulls' chances. Indeed, nothing went right for Chicago in the final seconds as Portland was able to push the final score to 106-98 on two free throws each by Gross and Hollins.

Hollins' game-winner was worth an extra $31,250 for each Blazer player -- the amount of bonus money they'd get for advancing to the Western Conference semifinals against Denver. "He's money," said Lucas, who had 21 points, 6 rebounds and 8 assists before fouling out.

"When I released it, the shot felt good," said Hollins, who prior to that had missed 12 of 16 shots on the day. Reminded of his cold shooting earlier, Hollins snapped, "I would have been shocked if the ball had come back out."

Mengelt, for his part, was complimentary. "The screen by Jones picked me off, but I got back on him. My main objective was not to foul him. He just made a good shot."

"Lionel hit a great pressure shot," Ramsay praised. Despite their disappointment, the Bulls, who won the middle game in Chicago, 107-104, showed their respect for the young Blazers and wished them well the rest of the way.

Chicago Coach Ed Badger predicted that Portland would beat Denver and go on to win the Western Conference title over either the Los Angeles Lakers or Golden State Warriors, the other semifinalists.

"They (the Blazers) are at the top of their game," Badger said. "I think we were the only team in the conference that could beat them." Blazer players didn't disagree with that assessment. The Bulls had a distinct rebound advantage in all three games (137 to 101) and thus they were able to neutralize Portland's major offensive weapon -- the fast break.

In this game, though, Portland's pressure defense forced a near-playoff record 36 Chicago turnovers, which more than compensated for a 42-27 Chicago rebound advantage.

Besides Hollins, who led the Blazers with 9 assists, Portland had many heroes for their first-ever playoff victory.

Gross, filling the lanes and moving so well without the ball against a slower Johnson, had a career-high 26 points, to go along with 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 steals.

"I got a lot of easy layups and when that happens, it shows we are playing well," said Gross, who also acknowledged that the taller 6-foot-10 Johnson, who scored 22, 29 and 34 points in the three games, was a very tough assignment.

Johnson was a board warrior, too, hauling in 14 rebounds, including six on the offensive glass. His offense, combined with the rainbow-shooting Mengelt, who had 28 points filling in for the injured Wilbur Holland, kept bringing the Bulls back from big deficits.

At one point, Chicago went on a 14-0 run to get to within 77-75 before Portland's Herm Gilliam started a 15-2 Blaze spurt.

Walton's 17 points and 11 rebounds were solid numbers against the taller Gilmore, who, for the second time in the series, had trouble getting open for his strong post-up game.

"We had a distinct size advantage with Artis against Walton, but we just couldn't get the ball to him because of their aggressive double team and Walton's skill in fronting him," Badger said.

Gilmore, who took only 12 shots in 44 minutes in Portland's 96-83 win to open the series, was limited to just 9 shots (only two in the first half) in the finale, finishing with 16 points and 14 rebounds.

To win the Chicago series, the aggressive Blazer defense had to commit fouls against the taller Bulls, who converted 76 of 90 free throws in the three games while Portland was making just 38 of 55.

But the Blazers made 28 more field goals! -- an astounding number considering how close this series was.

Other than Portland's first-ever playoff series win, not too much was going on in the world on April 17, 1977... if you overlook the joy in Karlstad over Sweden's curling victory.

There was one other notable event held that day in Dresden, East Germany where composer Udo Zimmerman unveiled his new opera, "The Schuber and the Flying Princess." It's a silly plot about a tailor whose 10th child is an egg that hatches into a wise birdman.

While that story line has little to do with Portland beating Chicago, it can be said that Jack Ramsay's Blazers got a lot wiser that day, and grew up into high-flying playoff contenders.
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