Even before the Portland Trail Blazers and the Seattle Super Sonics began their best-of-seven quarterfinal series to determine which team would survive to go on in the NBA playoffs, a lot of questions were bouncing around out there in Drizzle world.
For instance, was Portland's Bill Walton more crippled in a) his left foot b) his right foot or c) his monologues to the press? Was Seattle's Lenny Wilkens some kind of a) miracle worker b) faith healer ore) just plain lucky?
By the end of the week—after the teams had split the first two games in Portland and the upstart Sonics had whipped the Blue Cross Blazers back at home on Sunday afternoon—only one of the questions had been answered, but it was a terribly important one: all the kumquat juice in the world could not save Bill Walton from reinjuring himself, having his left ankle wrapped in a cast and missing the rest of the playoffs.
When we last unfurled the umbrellas, the Sonics had become the biggest surprise in the NBA after Wilkens took over as coach and the team magically produced 42 victories in 60 regular-season games. With Seattle's tri-pronged back-court of Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson and Fred Brown outscoring opposing guards by a whopping 154 points to 89, the team had dispatched the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs and seemed on the verge of one of those sprees of emotion and confidence that unpredictably seem to energize some fortunate NBA contender at this time every year; e.g., Phoenix in 1976, Portland in 1977.
Still, the Sonics had only limited playoff experience, and there was some doubt whether the team had poise enough to hold up inside the noisy jaws of Blazer-mania. This was of grave concern, especially since on their last trip to Oregon, the Sonics had lost by blowing a 16-point lead. "The crowd intimidated us," Wilkens admitted.
As the series began, most of what passed as a league-record ticket-buying throng of 25,995 (the usual 12,666 sellout in Memorial Coliseum plus 13,329 more at five closed-circuit TV sites across the state) wondered how the injured and infirm world champions would respond after a nine-day layoff.
Forward Bob Gross was still on crutches with a broken ankle, but Lucas, Lloyd Neal and Larry Steele all had recovered enough to play, while Walton would be starting at center for the first time in 49 days. The tall redhead began the evening by unloading juice crates from his pickup truck in the Coliseum parking lot. After a tumultuous welcome from his disciples, Walton unloaded on the Sonics, hitting his first five shots and snatching eight rebounds as the Blazers took a 53-46 halftime lead. For a while all seemed peachy in fruit and vegetable land. But it wasn't.
What was really happening was that Walton was grabbing the ball at the defensive end, firing out to begin the fearsome Blazer fast break, then hobbling up-court, where his teammates were hanging around twiddling thumbs and waiting for him to arrive before starting their quick-cutting patterns. When Walton finally got there, the Sonics had beaten the Blazers to their spots, clogged the passing lanes and disrupted Portland's entire offensive program.
This led to interceptions, tipped balls and breakaways, one of which the fleet Williams converted as Walton—at midcourt—attempted to lope after him, then just stopped and shook his head in disgust.
Seattle Center Marvin Webster and the lanky rookie Forward Jack Sikma obviously had been waiting to see just how mobile Walton was; by halftime they had found out. "He was nowhere near 100%, 'bout 70 I'd say," said Webster. "Me and Jack were going to take it to him."