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1976: The Warriors-Celtics Finals that almost was

The 2022 NBA Finals is the first Celtics-Warriors playoff matchup since 1964. But they should have faced off in 1976 - had Rick Barry not quit on his team.

Golden State Warriors Rick Barry, 1976 Playoffs
Rick Barry and his short shorts taking on Phoenix in the 1976 Western Conference Finals
SetNumber: X20511

When the Boston Celtics and the Golden State warriors tip off Thursday night in San Francisco, it’s the first time these two storied franchises have met in the playoffs since 1964. But the 59-23 1976 Warriors, a markedly improved version of their 1975 championship team, should have faced off with Boston in the NBA Finals, but for an inexplicable second-half performance from Rick Barry in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals. Upset that his teammates didn’t come to his aid during a first-half fight, Barry refused to shoot the ball in the second half (he denies this), and the 42-40 Suns came back to stun the Warriors in a 94-86 Game 7 victory that sent them to the Finals instead.

It was a pivotal game in the history of the franchise. Golden State had improved by 11 games over the 48-34 team of the 1975, the surprise champion that swept the Washington Bullets in the Finals. 31-year-old Rick Barry was still an All-Star, though he’d begin sharing the scoring burden with second-year standouts Phil smith and Jamaal Wilkes, just 23 and 22 years old, respectively. add in defensive standout Clifford Ray and 22-year-old future all-Star - and NBA champion - Gus Williams, and this was a team primed for a long run. They led the NBA in defensive rating and were second in offensive rating, outscoring opponents by a league-best 6.1 points per game. But something changed after this game.

Going into the conference finals, the Warriors were on a roll. They’d finished the season five games better than the league’s second-best team, the Celtics. They won the Pacific Division by 16 games. And they’d dispatched the Detroit Pistons in six games in round one with relative ease - three of their victories came by 17 points or more, before sweating out an overtime victory in Game 6.

They also started strong in the conference finals against the 42-40 Suns - much better than their record after a trade for Gar Heard helped erase a 5-18 start. Not dissimilar to the run this year’s Celtics made, in fact. Barry seemed rejuvenated, putting up 38 and 44 points in the first two games, as the Warriors took a 2-1 series lead. But in Game 4, Phoenix fouled Derrick Dickey off the ball - a play Rick Barry will still remind you would lead to one free throw and the ball for the Warriors. Dickey split his free throws, Phoenix’s Keith Ericksen tied the game at the buzzer, and Phoenix went on to win in double overtime. Suns beat writer Joe Gilmartin said, “Keith Ericksen had to learn to shoot because he couldn’t move.”

The Warriors led by 16 after a 40-point first quarter in Game 5, and cruised to a 111-95 win at home. In Game 6, Phoenix’s Alvan Adams hit a bucket late to give Phoenix a one-point lead and then Heard blocked Jamaal Wilkes’ jumper at the buzzer. How did team player Rick Barry feel about it. “We run a play, I come off a triple staggered screen, I was wide open,” said Barry years later. “Unfortunately, the ball was passed to the corner, I think to Jamaal.” So that’s resentment number one for Barry, or two, depending on how angry he was at Dickey for splitting his free throws and not shooting them underhand. “The ball should have gone to me. I was wide open,” Barry declared.

Perhaps that’s part of why Game 7 unfolded the way that it did. Early in the game, Phoenix’s Ricky Sobers hit Barry with an elbow and started a fight along the sidelines. Since this was the 1970’s, of course no one got ejected, since no one went to the hospital.

It’s reminiscent of a tactic Washington tried in 1975, when Mike Riordan cheap-shotted Barry early in Game 4 of the Finals. This time, Warriors coach and famed NBA fighter Al Attles (he was known as Wilt Chamberlain’s “bodyguard” despite being a foot shorter) intervened and attacked Riordan himself, getting himself ejected but keeping Barry in the game. And, he kept Barry feeling loved, a key aspect in dealing with the most insecure superstar in NBA history.

This time, Attles was on the wrong side of the court to jump in, and Barry’s teammates weren’t exactly rushing to his defense. And when the Warriors went into the locker room at halftime with a six-point lead, the legend has it that Barry saw the tape of the play, and noticed his teammates didn’t exactly have his back. And then, Barry stopped shooting, taking just one field goal attempt in the third quarter as Phoenix took a two-point lead.

Barry claims the idea of him getting mad is ridiculous. “To say that I got mad at my team, and was pouting, I mean what the hell was that about?” Does it seem plausible that Rick Barry would get spontaneously angry? Let’s see.

Barry claims it was a matter of his teammates not getting him the ball. “I look back and say I should have been the SOB everyone thought I was, and demanded the basketball.” But if you’re familiar with Rick Barry’s career on and off the court, it’s pretty clear that Rick is exactly the SOB everyone thinks he is. It’s not like he was distributing the ball either - Barry had a series-low two assists in Game 7. Look, it may not have been anger about the fight, or not getting the ball at the end of Game 6, or that he didn’t take the free throws at the end of Game 4. Maybe it was Phoenix’s physical defense. But Rick Barry certainly didn’t play like Rick Barry for the most important two quarters of the Warriors’ season.

Sobers and the Suns seem to think Barry wasn’t trying. “That’s the great mystery,” said Sobers. “People accused him of quitting, and I don’t know if that’s the case. Rick Barry is the one that has to answer that.” There’s a play early in the first half where Barry calls for the ball for roughly seven straight seconds and the Warriors don’t get it to him, and then miss a shot. From then on, the tape doesn’t lie.

Barry spends most of his time out on the perimeter, often standing with his hands on his hips. He doesn’t attempt to drive, simply passing off when he catches the ball, and he also doesn’t run back on defense. Barry hardly even dribbled! Attles finally benched Barry to begin the 4th quarter, and the Dubs retook the lead while he was out, 69-68 (nice).

With a few minutes left, Barry finally started driving again - again, he dribbled a Klay Thompson amount in this contest, but he was a catch-and-pass guard, not catch-and-shoot. Watching the footage, it feels like how Chris Paul plays at the end of a losing playoff game, desperately trying to get his shooting numbers up so the box score won’t make his bad game quite as obvious. Barry finally makes a basket to cut the lead to 82-76, a play that stands out because he’s actually running. He scores again with 1:30 to go, but the Warriors are down 12 points by then. And then Phoenix goes to the Finals to play the Celtics, and not the 59-win Warriors.

It’s very similar to a game 30 years later, where Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers were facing a Game 7 against another Phoenix Suns team. After he’d been criticized for shooting too much in a 50-point effort during a Game 6 loss, the inventor of Mamba Mentality took just three shots in the second half of Game 7. And it wasn’t like he was distributing the ball either - Kobe finished with a single assist.

Something happened to Rick Barry in that second quarter. And him getting mad and sulky about his teammates is the simplest and most plausible explanation. If Barry was missing shots, if he was getting stripped, if he was simply making an effort to score, it would be easy to chalk this up to a bad game. But when a Hall of Famer won’t even dribble in an elimination game - one that would let his team defend an NBA title! - there was something going on psychologically.

Whatever the case, the team imploded after the disastrous Game 7. Years later, Attles wouldn’t talk about Barry, explaining, “Rick knows why.” The Warriors, loaded with young talent, dropped to 46-36 the next season, and lost in the second round. Rick Barry did shoot in Game 7 of that round, just poorly, scoring 15 points on 20 shots. In 1977-78, they missed the playoffs at 43-39, and Barry left for the Houston Rockets. The Warriors would lose Williams and Wilkes, and go on to miss the playoffs for ten straight years.

Did he quit on his team in the biggest moment? Rick Barry is the one who has to answer that. And I’m not sure we can trust him on this subject.