Depending upon which team you fancied, it was the Coming-of-Age Series or the Exposing-the-Myth Series or even the Series Nobody-Saw-Much-of-Outside-the-Picturesque-Wonderlands-of- Oregon-and-Colorado. In any case, it was a taut and exhausting competition that the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets—hardly a couple of traditional rivals—waged last week in the semifinal playoffs of the NBA Western Conference.
While most TV attention was focused on the more glamorous pairings in the founding colonies ( Philadelphia-Boston) and out on the California freeways (Los Angeles-Golden State) and even down along the Tex-Tax connection (Houston-Washington), the Portland vs. Denver matchup turned out to be the kind of classic struggle not ordinarily associated with such babes in the NBA playoff woods.
"Heart throbbers," Denver Coach Larry Brown called the games in which his team always seemed to be on the verge of winning until some strange shot or official's call or mental breakdown proved to be the Nuggets' undoing.
Indeed, though Portland led the series 3-2 after losing to the Nuggets in Denver Sunday, the situation easily might have been reversed, so well-balanced and evenly matched were the adversaries. The difference was that the young Trail Blazers seemed to grow and gain poise and confidence—not to mention the respect engendered by the terrifying gaze of their 6'9" Forward Maurice Lucas—while, until the fifth game, the Nuggets unraveled and turned to fool's gold amid injuries, self-doubt and the internal bickering that Brown had tried so hard to prevent.
The imposing presence of Lucas, who has had the best year of any power forward in the NBA, influenced the series even before it started. In the regular season Big Luke averaged 23.5 points and 13 rebounds against the Nuggets, so Brown juggled his lineup, moving David Thompson to the backcourt and inserting veteran Paul Silas in the corner to cope with Lucas.
But in Game One in Denver, Lucas found Silas no hindrance, scoring 11 baskets and taking down 13 rebounds. Indeed, in the final minutes the assignment of containing Lucas was given to Dan Issel. Nonetheless, with 11 seconds remaining Portland trailed by a point. Thompson had just blown two chances to clinch the game, first by missing two free throws, then by whipping a pass out of bounds. Well, if the Nuggets didn't want it, Lucas would take it.
The Portland play was set up for Dave Twardzik to cut back door. Lucas didn't even glance his way. He backed-in Issel toward the basket, turned and sank a line-drive 14-footer that won the game 101-100.
Afterward, Blazer Coach Jack Ramsay quieted the uproarious Portland locker room for his usual serious dissertation. Then he said, "First, Luke gets fined $50 for not running the play." The Blazers broke up.
Lucas arrived in the NBA this season following a stormy career, in which he went from Schenley High in Pittsburgh to Marquette University to St. Louis and Kentucky of the ABA and, finally, to a hillside house in southwest Portland, where he resides with his stunning wife Rita, a graduate of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and an assistant director of computer services for the city.
Lucas' reputation as a dukes-up intimidator—considerably enhanced in the mini-series with the Chicago Bulls when he punched out a trainer and nearly strangled a referee by pulling his whistle chain—as well as the fact that he plays second banana to Bill Walton, have kept him from being acclaimed as a superstar. As he says, somewhat paradoxically, "I'm no crazy boxing madman, but I just want them to know Luke is out busting chops. If I had this kind of year in New York, I'd be governor."