1975 NBA Finals: Golden State 4, Washington 0
Barry’s Warriors Produce Epic Upset
The Eastern Conference came down to one of those good old-fashioned scraps in 1975. Washington and Boston were the combatants, and they drew all the attention. The home-court edge went to the Celtics late in the year, when they won the final meeting between the two teams, 95-94.
That single point could determine the league championship, several writers predicted. At the time, that observation seemed reasonable enough. But the prediction overlooked the Western Conference, where the Golden State Warriors had trudged along to an undistinguished 48 wins and the regular-season crown. Their progress wasn't exactly silent; it just seemed that way back east.
The reasons for the oversight were simple enough. Golden State had undergone several key personnel changes, and adjustments had to be made. At the start of the season, many writers hadn't even picked the Warriors to make the playoffs.
The franchise had needed cash, so before the season began management had traded veteran center Nate Thurmond to Chicago for center Clifford Ray, a first-round draft pick and $500,000. The deal wasn't exactly considered a blockbuster for Golden State. Ray was viewed as a journeyman and he had undergone major knee surgery just two seasons earlier. Thurmond himself was hobbled by age and in the twilight of his career. Besides, success in pro basketball required that a team have a major talent at center. Yet by the end of the season the trade would loom as the genesis of a championship.
The Warriors also got help in the post from George Johnson, a 6-foot-11 stringbean out of little Dillard College who provided solid backup minutes for Ray at center. "We got two different looks from our two centers," Golden State star Rick Barry said. "Ray was the physical presence, and Johnson brought us shotblocking." Mainly a finesse player, Johnson knew how to rebound. Together, they gave the Warriors nearly 18 rebounds and 14 points per game.
The 6-foot-9 Ray offered many qualities important to a team: a physical style, an unselfish nature, a solid leadership quotient and a friendly, unassuming manner. "Clifford was sort of like everyone's big brother," recalled Jamaal Wilkes, then a rookie. "He was very critical in my career in terms of breaking the game down into very simple fundamentals, in terms of keeping me loose and helping me to keep it all in perspective."
Besides his own play, Ray's influence on Wilkes' development was critical in helping the young player win the Rookie of the Year award. Before the season opened, Golden State watched forwards Cazzie Russell and Clyde Lee head to other clubs. Then Derrek Dickey was hampered by injury. As a result, Wilkes found himself the starting power forward, an unlikely development. A willowy 6-foot-6, 190-pounder, Wilkes had been a controversial first-round selection, eliciting questions and complaints from fans and Bay Area writers. At best, Wilkes was forecast as a backup to Barry at small forward, and the team had other critical needs.
"There were a lot of questions about whether I could survive the rigors of the NBA," Wilkes conceded.
Wilkes averaged better than 14 points and eight rebounds over the course of the season. He could have done even better at small forward, but he wasn't the type of player to create dissension. "Playing with Rick isn't all that bad," Wilkes told the writers. "I get a lot of open shots because of him. He's so great one-on-one, they all sag on him, leaving me open. And you learn a lot from Barry just watching him."
Without question, it was Barry's team. His self-confidence didn't endear him to opponents around the league. His every step seemed a swagger. Even on a bad night, he knew he would hit for 20 points, and on a good night 35 to 40. Yet beneath all these superficial irritants, Barry was a real gamer. "I didn't have any problem with him," Attles said. "He was like most players. They have their own ideas about things. But he came to play."
Barry had begun his career with the Warriors in 1964. In a highly publicized move, he had sat out a year to gain control of his contract, then had jumped to the American Basketball Association, where he led Oakland to the 1969 league title. He finally bounced back to Golden State and the NBA in 1972.
It also helped that Barry was enjoying one of his best seasons in 1974-75. As the focus of the Warriors' offense, he averaged 30.6 points. "It all kind of fell together," he said. "I had as good a season as I'd ever had." Many observers thought that Barry should be the league MVP, but the award instead went to Bob McAdoo of the Buffalo Braves. Barry hadn't expected the award, because he knew he wasn't popular with the players around the league.
In retrospect, although Barry's offense was important to the team, the key to Golden State's success element was the Warriors' dedication to defense. That, of course, was due largely to Attles. The team mirrored the coach's personality. The Philadelphia Warriors had made Attles a fifth-round draft pick out of North Carolina A&T in 1960. He was a 6-footer with a brickbat of a shot, but he survived in the NBA on his guile and tenacity.
He was blessed with that special combination of toughness and modesty necessary for an NBA coach. Yet those properties would have been wasted had he not been a solid technical strategist with a nose for defense. And if Attles wanted anything from his teams, it was defense.
The veteran factor in the backcourt was Butch Beard. Although Attles disdained the idea of separate roles for guards, the 6-foot-4 Beard did most of the ballhandling and point guard chores. And Charles Johnson, a 6-footer, played more of a scoring role. The Warriors would trade Beard the year after their championship, a development that Attles has often described as a mistake.
"He really was a player who didn't get the credit he deserved," Attles said of Beard. "He was the glue. Butch had been a first-round draft pick out of Louisville. He had bounced around the league with a couple of teams. Of all the guards we had, he was more the classic point guard. He ran the break and took care of the ball."
Not long after the season opened, Western Conference teams began noticing that Attles had a competitive club. "You could see that Al was putting their team together," said Lakers assistant John Barnhill. "They were going to go out and hustle a team to death. He just seemed to lift them right up and make them go, and that's a tribute to Attles the coach."
An already strong rotation became even stronger just before the trading deadline, when Warriors general manager Dick Vertlieb acquired 13-year veteran Bill Bridges from the Lakers for the express purpose of playing defense against Chicago's Bob Love in the playoffs. Vertlieb's foresight paid dividends.
The Warriors then found themselves in another type of scrap, this one on the court, a seven-game battle with the Bulls in the Western Conference Finals. In that matchup Bridges filled just the role he'd been acquired for. Even so, the Chicago series was tougher than it should have been.
Barry complicated the situation when he became confused over the 24-second shot clock and blew a critical game early in Chicago. The situation was further aggravated when the Warriors lost the fifth game at home and had to go into Chicago Stadium trailing the Bulls. Bulls forwards Love and Chet Walker had a field day until Attles sent Bridges into the game to slow them down. He did, and the Warriors won the game to tie the series at three apiece.
Barry had played well in the sixth game, but he struggled in the seventh game, hitting only one of a dozen shots. Finally, Attles pulled him. Barry sat on the bench praying for his teammates to bail him out, which they did down the stretch. The Golden State defense forced the Bulls into a cold streak with about seven minutes to go, and the Warriors pulled even. Then Barry returned to the game and hit several key shots near the end to send his team on to the championship round.
It was the Warriors' first trip to the NBA Finals since 1967, when they had lost to Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers. Most observers were unimpressed, however. Washington seemed far superior. In their last regular-season meeting with Golden State, the Bullets had won in a blowout. They had dominated the Eastern Conference by virtue of their running game and their depth of talent. Despite struggling through an exhausting seven-game series with Buffalo and McAdoo in the first round, they had dispatched Boston in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
They were a swift, strong team, coached by former Celtic K.C. Jones. Little Kevin Porter spearheaded the offense by driving and dishing with an array of dazzling fakes and moves. He led the league in assists by penetrating and then dropping the ball off to Elvin Hayes, Phil Chenier or Wes Unseld. At 6-foot-9, Hayes displayed a full repertoire of shots, from snazzy post moves to bombs from the deep corners. He and jump-shooter Chenier were among the top scorers in the league. The backcourt also featured Mike Riordan, a former Knicks defensive specialist who had developed into a solid offensive player. He, too, fit nicely into the Washington running game with his endless energy and superior conditioning.
The 29th NBA Finals series opened in Washington with an array of interesting matchups. For the first time in a major American sports championship, the head coaches of the opposing teams were black. Oddly enough, this didn't seem to interest the media. "It wasn't something we thought about," said Attles. "I know it wasn't on K.C.'s mind, because we never mentioned it, and we talked a good bit. The only thing we were concerned about was trying to beat each other."
Jet lag left the Warriors strangely out of synch in Game 1, yet by the half they had somehow managed to build a 14-point lead. When they began flagging in the third period, the bench rescued them, particularly Phil Smith, Charles Dudley and Dickey. Smith scored 20 points in 31 minutes of playing time as K.C. Jones saw his worst nightmare realized. Golden State drew first blood in the series, 101-95.
The Bullets now faced two games on the West Coast. Still, their confidence seemed only slightly shaken.
"Things will be different," Unseld promised. And they were. First of all, the Warriors had their choice of playing in their regular building in Oakland or moving to the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Barry talked his teammates into choosing the Palace because its rims favored shooters. Even better, none of the Bullets had ever played there.
Washington jumped on Golden State from the start of Game 2 and established a 13-point lead. But with the home crowd behind them, the Warriors refused to disappear. Behind Barry's 36 points, they battled back to take a 92-91 lead in the closing seconds. The nervous Bullets got the ball back with six seconds left but missed two shots.
With a two-game lead and more confidence than ever, Golden State established its superiority in Game 3. The Bullets, meanwhile, were under intense pressure. No team had ever come back from a deficit of three games to none in the NBA Finals. They had to win.
It was Barry, however, who responded to the pressure, pouring in 38 points. George Johnson, subbing for Ray, was another major factor. His 10 points and nine rebounds helped take the heart out of Washington's game. Toward the end, the Bullets appeared disorganized and dazed.
The major factor in their undoing was the Warriors' defense, particularly by Wilkes, who had held Elvin Hayes to a total of 29 points over three games. The secret was in making Hayes work for his points, Wilkes told the writers. "Pushing him out, fronting him, making him play defense and tiring him out. Then what happens, happens." Meanwhile, the Golden State bench had flourished, outscoring the Washington bench 115-53 over the same span.
On Sunday, May 25, things immediately got off to a bad start for Golden State in Game 4. Attles was ejected following a fracas in the first quarter, and the Warriors fell behind by 14 points. But their pressure defense carried them back, and Beard scored the last seven points. He delivered the coup de grace with a pair of free throws that assured the win, 96-95.
The Warriors had won four games by a total margin of 16 points. "It wasn't like we blew them out," Attles said. "Each game was close. And we were getting much better all the time."
"Like the phoenix, we have risen from the ashes," exulted Golden State owner Franklin Mieuli. The Warriors returned to Oakland afterward and found a throng waiting at the airport. "I remember this incredible crush of people," Barry said. "We got really scared because they caved in the roof of the cab we were in."
"It has to be the greatest upset in the history of the NBA Finals," claims Barry. "But few people paid any attention to it. Sports Illustrated didn't even do a cover story on us. They hadn't expected us to win it. It was like a fairy-tale season. Everything just fell into place. It's something I'll treasure for the rest of my life."
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