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Rubino: Warriors fans might find 1976 collapse haunting

Clifford Ray (44) of the Golden State Warriors loses control of the ball as he drives for the basket in the deciding game of the NBA Western Conference finals in Oakland, May 16, 1976. Defending for the Phoenix Suns is Alvan Adams (33). Phoenix upset the defending champion Warriors 94-86 to win the game and the conference title. (AP Photo/John Storey)

ROBERT RUBINO,

Do you believe in ghosts?

Of course you don’t.

But if you’re a Warriors fan of a certain age, and if you believe that those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it, you might be haunted by what happened 40 years ago.

In the spring of 1976, the defending NBA champion Warriors, boasting the best regular-season record in the NBA and the best in franchise history, began the Western Conference final as presumptive winners.

Sound familiar?

But they ran into a supremely confident upstart team in the Phoenix Suns, led by Paul Westphal and Rookie of the Year Alvan Adams. The Suns dealt the Warriors a rare home loss in Game 2, then won Games 4 and 6 in Phoenix — the former in double overtime and the latter by one point — and extended the series to seven games, always a dangerous spot for a presumptive winner.

Still, for Game 7 the Warriors were at home, where they had lost only five games during the season. Accepted wisdom held that it would be ludicrous to think the Warriors would lose twice on their home court in one series.

The Warriors held a six-point lead at halftime and trailed by only two going into the fourth quarter. It wasn’t delusional for fans to imagine a script in which the Warriors would easily overcome that puny deficit and roll into the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics in a matchup of the league’s two best teams and its two most recent champions.

But the Suns never read that script.

And then things got strange.

Although Rick Barry would lead the Warriors with 20 points, he seemed to become invisible in that fourth quarter, and some observers — fans and media alike — claimed he pouted when teammates didn’t pass the ball to him.

Phoenix guard Dick Van Arsdale was quoted after the game: “Rick seemed disenchanted.”

Commenting about that fourth quarter, Barry later told Sports Illustrated: “I run around, run around — for what? I never touched the ball sometimes. It was a total breakdown. Ridiculous. We deserved to lose.”

And lose they did, 94-86.

Oh, sure, that was then and this is now.

And as talented as that 1976 team was — with future Hall of Famers Barry and Jamaal Wilkes, and Phil Smith, Clifford Ray, George Johnson and Gus Williams, among others — the current Warriors are, well, the best ever — having just concluded the winningest regular season in the 70-year history of the NBA, the best road record in league history, and having three dynamic All-Stars in Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and back-to-back Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry. And the deepest bench. And the smartest coaching staff.

Besides, if the current Western Conference final ever got to a seventh game, and if in the fourth quarter of that seventh game the going got tough, it’s next-to-impossible to visualize teammates ignoring Curry or Curry becoming “disenchanted.”

Check that. Not next-to-impossible. Flat-out impossible. Won’t happen. Can’t happen.

What’s not impossible to visualize is the Warriors losing a Western Conference final game on their home court. That’s because it already happened — in Game 1, no less. And if it happened once …

What’s not impossible to imagine is the Oklahoma City Thunder playing with supreme confidence, not caring a fig about the Warriors’ glorious accomplishments the past two seasons, disdaining Oracle Arena’s rockin’ with the eardrum-busting cacophony of Warriors fans, taking the series to the limit, placing a trip to the Finals up for grabs.

After all, with all due respect to that scrappy Suns team of 40 years ago, the Thunder didn’t sneak into the 2016 postseason. Fifty-five wins aren’t 73, true, not even close, but it’s the third-highest total in the conference. And the Thunder just came off a series in which they dismantled the venerable Spurs, who had the second-most wins in the conference, including beating them twice in San Antonio, where the Spurs had lost just once during the regular season.

And with all due respect to Alvan Adams and Paul Westphal, in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook the Thunder have two sure-fire future Hall of Famers who are playing as if possessed.

Just saying, it’s unlikely the Thunder have read the script in which the history-making Warriors complete a storybook season by repeating as NBA champions, or even as Western Conference champions.

Just saying, Warriors fans of a certain age don’t have to believe in ghosts to be haunted by the memory of the gut-punch shock of the Western Conference final of 40 years ago. Nor do they have to believe in ghosts to dread even the faintest possibility of history repeating itself.

Robert Rubino can be reached at RobertoRubino@comcast.net.