Seniority—or is it senility—being as fashionable as ever in our nation's capital, it was not too shocking last week to find the venerable Washington Bullets alive and wheezing in the NBA playoffs. With the antiquated likes of Elvin Hayes, Bob Dandridge and Wes Unseld—total years in the NBA: 29; total age: approximately 129—manning the barricades up front, all the Bullets need is for John Nance Garner to trot out at point guard and they would have a heck of a pinochle hand.
Instead Hayes, Dandridge and Unseld continue to play basketball like spring chickens, which is quite different from the way their Eastern Conference semifinal victims, the San Antonio Spurs, played, which was more like chickens with their heads cut off.
Before upsetting the 76ers in Philadelphia, 122-117, in the opening game of the Eastern finals last Sunday, the Bullets took advantage of San Antonio's undisciplined style first to outrun the Spurs, and then to outscore, outrebound and outthink them. Ultimately, what Washington did was use enough different techniques, strategies and personnel to confuse its Texas cousins right out of the playoffs, four games to two.
Which also confused the experts, who figured the Bullets would do their annual playoff el foldo. Wasn't this the same team of confirmed creakaholics whose mysterious loss of breath and determination has been a traditional May affliction? The Bullets made the NBA finals in 1971 and 1975 and won no games on both occasions. That's none. Zero. Oh and eight. On the other hand, Washington always seems to get to the playoffs, this being the Bullets' 10th consecutive year of qualifying.
May 7, 1978
But Bullet Coach Dick Motta was buying none of this fold-up talk. "I've said all along there are five solid teams in this league and that we are one of them," Motta said. "We can stay in there with the others—especially under playoff conditions, when there is more rest, more specific preparation and more scouting."
Considering that Washington had lost four of its last six regular-season home games and had looked less than overwhelming even while sweeping the Atlanta Hawks in a first-round mini-series, Motta's announcement seemed outrageous. Awaiting the Bullets in San Antonio was a team that had won 52 games and finished eight games ahead of the Bullets in the Central Division.
Still, Motta gambled that his musclemen could run with the helter-skelter Spurs even on their home court. He also took a risk by allowing Dandridge to sit out practices and the first game of the series to give his neck and groin injuries more time to heal.
San Antonio won the opener 114-103 on the wings of George Gervin's 35 points, but in the second game Washington went a long way toward clinching the series by pulling away to an early lead and holding on to win 121-117. It was the first time the Bullets had ever won in San Antonio, and the victory gave them the home-court edge. Hayes and Kevin Grevey combined for 59 points, while a hale Dandridge contributed 16 more and harassed Spur All-Star Larry Kenon into 4-for-16 shooting.
Though the San Antonio Iceman, Gervin, had again performed remarkably—46 points—a pattern had been set. Dandridge would fly downcourt on fast breaks, finesse his way open for soft onehanders or feeds to teammates, and positively humiliate Kenon, whose defensive gestures indicated he thought Dandridge was still on the sick list.
During Game 3 in Washington—or rather Landover, Md., which is about as close to Washington as the Panama Canal—Gervin finally got some help from Kenon, and they combined for 70 points. But the three other Spur starters totaled only nine as the Bullets won again 118-105. Once more Dandridge was the key man, scoring 12 points in the first quarter as Washington built a huge lead that was never threatened.
Now the Spurs were running scared, so in Game 4 San Antonio Coach Doug Moe elected not to run at all. It almost worked. Settling into a patterned, eat-up-the-clock attack, the Spurs led throughout but could not put the Bullets away. San Antonio was ahead 93-90 with 90 seconds left, but Dandridge—switched onto Gervin late in the game by Motta—forced the Iceman to miss an off-balance six-footer. Washington subsequently took the lead 96-95, and with 32 seconds left, Dandridge again forced Gervin into a peculiar clothesline jumper that Hayes, positioned under the basket, batted away to midcourt. The Spurs screamed for a goaltending call, but all they got was a 98-95 loss.
After the Spurs stayed alive with 13 blocked shots and a 116-105 decision in Game 5 played in San Antonio, their task was clear as well as monumental: they would have to win Friday night in Land-over, where they had never won and where the Bullets had not lost this season when more than 12,000 spectators were on hand.
For omen fans, a capacity crowd of 19,035 showed up. Spur Guard Mike Gale lost his uniform in an airline baggage mix-up and had to wear a Bullet road uniform turned inside out. Then the Capital Centre lights went out for eight minutes just after San Antonio had taken a 62-61 lead in the third quarter.
As the Spurs kept close tabs on Hayes and Dandridge, Bullet Guards Charlie Johnson and Larry Wright put in 30 points. With the score tied at 88-88 and 6:40 left in the game, Wright popped in a basket and then fed Hayes for a breakaway, eat-this-with-your-tortillas, monster dunk. The jangled Spurs missed their next five shots, not to mention any chance of surviving.
"The dunk broke their backs," said Hayes after his 25-point, 15-rebound performance in the 103-100 clincher.
"If you can't put the thing in the hole, you're gone," said Gervin, and that's exactly where the young Spurs were. For their part, the old Bullets were off to Philadelphia to try to uphold the seniority system once more.