“You should know by now, Bulls fans, that your favorite basketball team does not do things the easy way,” said Robert Markus after Game 1 of the 1974 Western Conference semi-finals. “The Bulls do not begin to fight until the fort is encircled, the wagons are going up in flames, and the battering ram has been placed at the door.” Forty-one years ago on April 13th the Bulls won the franchise’s first NBA playoff series after six trips going back to their expansion season of 1966-67.
The Bulls, coached by Dick Motta, with a core of Jerry Sloan, Bob Love, Chet Walker, Tom Boerwinkle, and Norm Van Lier had put together four consecutive (1971,’72,’73, and ’74) 50-win seasons, but had also been through four consecutive first round exits, two of them (1971 & 1973) seven game series with the Lakers. The Pistons, a team that in the 1971-72 season had won only twenty-six games, had the first African-American Coach of the Year Ray Scott, center Bob Lanier, and all of the cockiness needed to take down the more experienced Bulls, who, with home court advantage, looked to finally get out of the first round.
The Bulls of the early to mid-1970s had a reputation for being a highly entertaining if inconsistent team that could quickly change from a “purring machine to an abandoned freight car.” Dick Motta admitted that his team was difficult to figure out, but they were tough, scrappy, and had an underdog mentality, personified by guard Jerry Sloan, the only remaining Bull from the expansion season. In 1974, the Bulls (54-28) were the third seed, and the Pistons (52-30) were seeded fourth. The series would be tough if partly because the Bulls always did things the hard way. The only thing consistent about them was the belief that the Bulls usually “made it easy on themselves by making it tough on themselves.”
Since home court advantage might have made things easier, the Bulls gave it up and lost Game 1 97-88 in Chicago Stadium despite coming from seventeen down in the second half. The Bulls went into Detroit for Game 2 having never won a playoff game on the road. Behind Bob Love’s 38 points and Jerry Sloan’s defense, the 0-18 Bulls ended their losing streak 108-103 to snatch back home court. In Game 3 the Bulls were back to being the Bulls. They squandered a 71-59 lead in the final quarter and fell behind 76-71. However, two Chet Walker free throws with .13 seconds left gave the Bulls the 84-83 win and the 2-1 edge in the series. Detroit won Game 4 handily 102-87, the only game decided by double figures, at home amid lock down security due to threats called in against the Bulls’ Chet Walker and the Pistons’ Bob Lanier and Dave Bing.
With the series tied at two games, the Bulls were back home where they built a 17 point halftime lead. They led 92-78 with six minutes to play but Detroit stormed back, helped by a vintage Chicago second half drought. Detroit got as close as two points in the final minute before the Bulls took Game 5 98-94 on a clutch jumper by Van Lier. The win put Chicago, for the third time in four years, on the brink of closing a playoff series, but really, anyone that knew these Bulls probably suspected that this series was going seven games. Chicago jumped out early in Game 6 to a 20-7 lead before the injury bug hit. Jerry Sloan, the defensive anchor for much of the series, aggravated an injury to his plantar fascia, Norm Van Lier sprained his ankle, and Bob Love took a nasty hit on the arm that impacted his shot for the rest of the contest. The result, a 92-88 Detroit victory.
Game 7 was on April 13, 1974 in Chicago Stadium and the Bulls came out determined to erase the bad memories from the previous years. Sloan was absent due to the floor injury, but they played their way to a 64-45 lead in the third period. However, as was the story of the series, either due to Bulls’ or their opponent’s determination, Detroit erased the deficit and tied the game 92-92 with two minutes to play, the only tie of the contest. The Bulls won the final two minutes, the game, and their first playoff series 96-94.
The Bulls came into the 1974 Western Conference Semi-Finals with more playoff experience but pretty evenly matched with the Pistons. In the 1974 playoffs the young franchise cleared a major hurdle. They had won their first road playoff game and their first series, even though the Milwaukee Bucks swept the battered and bruised Bulls out of the Western Conference Finals. The Bulls had finally tasted playoff success and even though this series could have, and some probably would say should have, ended after either five or six games, the fact that the series came down to the final two minutes of Game 7 with the fort encircled and the battering ram at the door was probably the only appropriate way for it to happen.
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