With the NBA playoffs on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, here are some memorable 76ers playoff games dating to when they moved from Syracuse before the 1963-64 season. Is your favorite missing? Send feedback to Marc Narducci at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eleventh of 12 parts.
Billy Cunningham and his 76ers teammates felt they let one slip away. The Sixers had a golden opportunity to clinch the 1967 NBA championship at Convention Hall, but a fourth-quarter meltdown In Game 5 earned them a trip back to San Francisco.
The Sixers were leading their best-of-seven championship series three games to one and held a 96-84 advantage after three quarters in Game 5.
Inexplicably, the San Francisco Warriors stormed back, outscoring the Sixers, 33-13, in the fourth quarter en route to a 117-109 win, to force a sixth game.
Not only did the Sixers have to travel to San Francisco, but they had to play the game the next day, April 24.
“I think, if anything, we were upset with ourselves because we had to get on a plane and go all the way to San Francisco,” Cunningham, the Sixers’ sixth man, said in a recent interview with The Inquirer. “We didn’t have any intentions of getting on a commercial flight.”
Those were the days when NBA teams didn’t fly on chartered flights. It was a much different era.
“I am sure we flew coach back then, and it was not expected,” Cunningham said of the unwanted cross-country trip. “We had all the intentions of ending the series in Philadelphia.”
So much for those intentions.
In Game 5, Rick Barry led the Warriors with 36 points and Nate Thurmond had 17 points and 28 rebounds.
Sixers star Wilt Chamberlain, who was the MVP that season, contributed 20 points and 24 rebounds but took just 15 shots, making nine.
The key was that the Sixers were 27-for-46 from the foul line, with Chamberlain going 2-for-12.
So, all that earned them a return trip to San Francisco.
The fact that the series even went to a sixth game surprised some. During the regular season, the Sixers had won the East Division with an NBA-record 68-13 mark.
The Warriors were the West Division champions but were just 44-37. San Francisco was the only West team with a winning record.
In fact, that season, only three of the NBA’s 10 teams had winning records. Besides the Sixers and Warriors, the Boston Celtics were 60-21. (The Sixers had earned their berth in the Finals by beating Boston in five games in the East Division finals, snapping the Celtics’ string of eight consecutive NBA titles.)
The Warriors proved to be a much tougher opponent in the Finals than expected. In the opening game, the Sixers earned a 141-135 overtime win as Hal Greer scored 32 points, Wali Jones added 30, and Chamberlain had 16 points, 33 rebounds, and 10 assists while playing all 53 minutes.
The Sixers won convincingly, 126-95, in Game 2. San Francisco took Game 3 at home, 130-124, before the Sixers earned a 3-1 lead with a 122-108 win. After the Sixers lost Game 5, both teams took the long flight back to San Francisco.
Game 6 was played before a sellout crowd of 15,612 at the Cow Palace.
“I can remember how loud that place was,” Cunningham said.
San Francisco led, 102-96, after three quarters. Imagine the noise at that point.
Cunningham scored 17 points, with 13 coming in the fourth quarter. According to the NBA Encyclopedia, Chamberlain blocked six shots in the fourth quarter as the Sixers outscored San Francisco, 29-20, and claimed the title with the 125-122 victory.
“It was a great game, a close game,” Cunningham said. “It went down to the last few minutes.”
One of the Sixers’ unsung heroes was rookie Matt Guokas, who scored nine points in 12 minutes off the bench, including two key fourth-quarter baskets.
“I can remember a big basket, Matty Guokas scoring driving to the basket,” Cunningham recalls. “ I also remember Rick Barry took nearly 40 shots and he touched the ball less than 50 times.”
Barry scored 44 points, but shot 16-for-38. He had just two assists, amplifying Cunningham’s point that most of his touches resulted in shots. Barry was also 12-for-13 from the line. Jeff Mullins had 23 points, and Jim King had 19 points and 14 rebounds for the Warriors.
The Sixers were led by Jones, who had 27 points. Chamberlain had 24 points and 23 rebounds. Chet Walker scored 20 points, Greer added 15, and Luke Jackson contributed 13 points and 21 rebounds.
Chamberlain became much less concerned with scoring, concentrating instead on his all-around game. The year before, he averaged 33.5 points in the regular season. In 1966-67, he averaged 24.1 points.
During the series, he was the Sixers’ fifth-leading scorer, averaging 17.7 points, but he did average 28.5 rebounds and 6.8 assists. In short, he was still a major force.
This Sixers team was so talented that Chamberlain didn’t have to carry the offensive load, although he was still certainly capable of doing so.
In the championship series, Greer averaged a team-best 26 points, followed by Walker (23.3), Jones (20.2), and Cunningham (19.7). Jackson averaged 9.2 points and 12.5 rebounds.
This was outstanding balance.
San Francisco had five players average in double figures, but the Warriors lived and died with the offense of Barry, who averaged 40.8 points for the series but shot just 40% from the field. He launched 235 field goal attempts, an average of 39.2 per game. That was more than the combined attempts of Greer and Chamberlain (223).
With all the Sixers’ balance, the key was still Chamberlain. The 1966-67 season was his eighth in the NBA and his first championship. He would win a second with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1971-72.
Entering the playoffs in 1967, Chamberlain knew this was his best chance to win a title.
“There was so much pressure on him,” recalled Sonny Hill, one of Chamberlain’s best friends and a Philadelphia basketball legend in his own right. “The pundits were saying ‘You can score but can’t win.’ The media harped on it and it became a burden.”
The burden was finally lifted.
“He’s the greatest NBA player of all time,” Hill said. “Not even close.”
Added Cunningham: “He was an amazing athlete, an amazing basketball player.”
And he was part of an amazing team.
This is a team that included five future Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame members -- Chamberlain, Greer, Walker, Cunningham, and coach Alex Hannum, who also led the St. Louis Hawks to the 1958 NBA title and the Oakland Oaks to the 1969 ABA championship.