There were more than a few empty seats in Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium last Friday night, which was a little hard to understand considering that two of the three best teams in the NBA East—maybe in the entire league—were going at each other in a semifinal playoff series that was as close as a series could be. The game was on national television but blacked out locally, so that wasn't the reason for the no-shows, and neither was the weather, which was absolutely balmy for Buffalo. Long on the smarts but short on faith, the missing fans apparently had decided that they did not want to witness an execution, specifically of their Braves by the Washington Bullets. Sure, the Braves had won the first game, but in the next two the Bullets had chopped them up badly. And besides, the Braves hadn't won a single home game against the Bullets all year. So, knowing exactly what kind of a contest they would see, several thousand of the faithless elected to watch a rerun of Sanford and Son.
But the thing about Game Four in this bearpit of a series was that it was like the others only in that it was different. The first three had gone decisively one way or the other and had turned, more often than not, on what happened in the third quarter. Buffalo won the first game rather easily 113-102, but there was a suspicion, which was reinforced after the next two games, that Buffalo had caught the Bullets on an unusually bad night. How often, for instance, could a club as lacking in size as Buffalo limit Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes to just 16 rebounds between them? Unseld led the NBA in rebounding; Hayes was eighth.
But Unseld's rebounding championship had a price. In the final days of the season the burly 6'7" center played many more minutes than usual, and at last his damaged left knee rebelled. For the first time since it was operated on last summer, the knee had to be drained, and he was unable to work out the two days preceding the first game. On opening night he was operating at maybe 50% effectiveness.
The Bullets also had trouble with Buffalo's speed and tough defense. Elvin Hayes scored 20 points, a so-so night for him. And Phil Chenier, he of the picture-book jumper, who is deadly when right, was mostly wrong, hitting on only nine of 21 shots. Washington's third scorer, Mike Riordan, was in a scoring slump. But mostly Washington never got its offense untracked because the Braves' Randy Smith effectively closed off little Kevin Porter's penetration. Porter, driving and dealing off, led the NBA in assists, but he had just four in the game.
Controlling the boards, Buffalo's fast-break offense had Washington spinning. Bob McAdoo, the league's MVP, finished with 35 points, Gar Heard and Smith with 24 each.
"I haven't seen a team run by us like that all year," said K. C. Jones, the Washington coach. "We were absolutely terrible. The only sure way to keep McAdoo from going to the basket is to put a bomb in his car when we get to Buffalo."
Riordan was more reflective and, as it turned out, prophetic about how the series would go. "It's going to be like this," he said. "Each team will be trying to establish its game. Ours is boards, control and team defense. Theirs is running, forcing turnovers and McAdoo. Between the three teams—us, Boston and Buffalo—the pecking order hasn't been established. Any of the three could be the best. Like tonight. We had it in the first half, our game. Then Unseld got a little fatigued, and in the third quarter suddenly they spurted. At first it's subtle. They're a step quicker to the ball, we miss a couple of fast breaks. Soon they're running, getting loose balls, and they are beating us. Then we have to change things and we're playing even worse."
Out on the court, meanwhile, several thousand Washington fans had remained to watch Tony Roberts' postgame show on the Capital Centre's huge Telscreen. His guest was Smith, whose introduction drew a few boos.
"Well, Randy—a big game for the Braves," Roberts said. "The Bullets have lost only six games at home this year and three were to Buffalo."
"Yeah, well, we don't think Washington is such an unbeatable team," offered the 6'3" swiftie.
The boos grew louder.
"Ah, yes," said Roberts. "Well, Randy, I might add that the Bullets won both games the teams played in Buffalo."
"True. But you know if they expect to win there Saturday they are going to have to play a lot harder than they did tonight."
Up in the stands, a fan whipped off a sneaker and threw it toward Smith. A few beer cups sailed down. It was a short interview.
For the second game Unseld's iced-down knee was back in working order, and he swept the boards for 25 rebounds, 10 of them at the offensive end. Hayes added 16, giving the pair 41, five more than the entire Buffalo team. The Braves' running game was slowed to a jog.
Hayes solved a problem, too. In the opener McAdoo played off him, let him make a move and then was content to stick a blinding hand in his face when he shot. It was effective. And the Braves had been able to forget about Unseld and put two or sometimes three men on Hayes. But when Unseld drilled home his first two shots in the second game, both 20-footers, half Buffalo's stop-Hayes strategy went down the drain. The Braves no longer could ignore the Bullet center.
With only McAdoo to contend with, Hayes began to hit with his 15-foot turnaround jump shot. And McAdoo began to guess. Hayes was home free. He scored 34 points and Washington won easily 120-106.
"Well, we've had it both ways," said Buffalo Coach Jack Ramsay after Game Two. "We rebounded and ran in the first one; they rebounded and kept us from running in the second. But we have a lot of confidence in ourselves. Even though we were underdogs, I honestly think we were a little overconfident."
The series moved back to Washington for Game Three, and the Braves were in trouble almost immediately when Smith, the only man with a chance of stopping Porter, picked up three quick fouls in the first quarter and sat out nearly 14 minutes of the half. The way Porter was playing, it might not have mattered. From the opening tip-off, he was a cobra gone mad. The 5'11" guard would quickly bring the ball down, dazzle everyone with a dozen or so fakes and then crash the middle, dealing off, in the end, for 13 assists while scoring 19 points on his own.
"I figure I could have had a few more points if they'd start calling a few fouls when I drive," said Porter. "Can you believe they only called one my way all night? I guess I'm known as a fouler, and all the officials look for me to foul. Not the other way around."
When Porter is driving well, everything is go in the Washington offense, and the Bullets began dismantling the Buffalo defense.
Still, Washington had a few problems of its own. Riordan, who averaged 15.4 points during the regular season, was unable to shake his scoring slump, and was replaced by Nick Weatherspoon. The lanky second-year man out of Illinois had the responsibility of stopping McAdoo, who at one time or another in the series had been guarded by everyone in Washington but Nancy Kissinger.
"It's a challenge," said Weatherspoon, "but I love challenges in basketball. McAdoo is such a great player all you can do is try to contain him."
McAdoo scored 34 points.
"But it was a bad 34," Ramsay said later. "Any time you hit on only 13 of 35 shots, you are taking bad shots. We're all taking bad shots."
At halftime Washington led by only a point, 53-52, and the game was still waiting to be broken open. And then, as it had in the first game, came the third-quarter spurt. Chenier, who had scored nothing in the first quarter and only four points in the second, had 18 in the third and 10 of the Bullets' last 12 to move them into an 81-70 lead. He finished with 28, Hayes with 30, and the final score of the third game was 111-96.
Again, Unseld and Hayes were busy on the boards, including the offensive end, and when they didn't come down in complete control, they still were managing to keep the ball alive for a teammate.
"When you can control the ball for 35 or 40 seconds at a time with second and third shots, that puts an awful lot of pressure on the other team's defense," said Chenier. "And even if you don't eventually score, they are so tired from playing defense it slows down their running game."
No longer suffering from overconfidence, the Braves climbed out of bed at 5:30 the next morning, flew to Buffalo, and by 11 were at the Auditorium. For 35 minutes they looked at a film of the previous night's defeat, and then they listened to a 45-minute lecture from Ramsay. After that they practiced.
"We've been relying too much on bursts," said Ramsay. "We've got to be able to do things when we're not getting the rebounds to trigger the fast break."
"It's like a tennis game," observed Jim McMillian, an important cog in the Braves' offense who had not been having a very good playoff. "They had first serve on their home court—the advantage—and we broke it. Then we had the advantage. And they broke it. Then they held their advantage. Now we have to hold ours and then go down there and break theirs again."
For the first half of the fourth game it appeared very much that Washington might break Buffalo again and go up 3-1 in the series. With Hayes, Chenier and Weatherspoon producing most of the points, and only McAdoo able to generate anything for Buffalo, Washington held a nine-point lead at halftime.
Later Guard Ken Charles would remember that all the Braves suddenly made up their minds that they had nothing to lose by becoming very physical in the second half.
"It looked like we were about to give them their third game," he said. "We decided it was do or die. We had to go out and play our game. We had nothing to lose by bumpin' and pushin' and runnin'. So we did.
"And then Mr. McAdoo got hot, and when Mr. McAdoo gets hot all you got to do is give him the ball and get out of the way. Nothing's easier. We could be down by 50 and if Mr. McAdoo gets hot we'll get back."
"This was a very important game," McAdoo said. "I just decided there was no way they were going to stop me. And when I am hitting my shots, I don't care how much defense they put on me. All I had to do was concentrate."
Once again, the game swung around in the third quarter. McAdoo poured in 15 points in that period, leading Buffalo to a 78-75 advantage. In the fourth he added 15 more and the Braves had evened the series with a 108-102 victory that was not as close as the score indicated. McAdoo's night consisted of 50 very good points, 21 rebounds, two steals, two blocked shots and one assist.
On the Bullets' side, Hayes suffered a kind of paralysis. He didn't take a shot in the third quarter and made only one of the four he attempted in the fourth—a breakaway dunk—before fouling out with 6:22 left to play.
"I think Elvin stopped playing when he was given his fourth personal," said McMillian, who scored 18 to end his own slump. "He didn't seem to do anything after that. He seemed afraid to pick up his fifth foul."
Hayes' paralysis was short-lived and, characteristically, the fifth game was unlike any of the preceding four. On Sunday, spurred perhaps by his non-performance of two nights previous, Hayes played like a man possessed.
"Today it was down to the money and you can't waste any time, you got to put it all in there," he said after Washington had won the game 97-93. "I went right into my shot and thank God it was there."
With the Buffalo defense designed to sag and surround him every time he touched the ball, Hayes quickened his release, drilled home 11 of his first 12 shots and finished with 46 points, the last 16 in the fourth quarter. McAdoo had 34 points but a bad shooting afternoon and, for a change, the game hung in the balance until the very end, when Unseld, who again dominated the boards, put in an offensive rebound with five seconds to play. As McMillian might say: 3-2, advantage Washington. And back to Buffalo to see what McAdoo might serve up.