By the time the War Between The Washingtons—the D.C. Bullets vs. the Seattle SuperSonics—for the basketball championship of the world finally concludes sometime next November, Wes Unseld and Paul Silas will eminently deserve to be jointly commemorated with a monument. It should be constructed of brick, in keeping with their shared shooting touch. It should be anchored firmly to the ground—none of this newfangled light and mobile stuff—just as the 6'7½" Bullet center and the 6'7" Sonic forward are when they deploy themselves under the backboards. And it should include statues of a couple of fat, over-the-hill, can't-shoot, can't-jump, can't-do-anything-but-survive-and-win NBA graybeards bumping and grinding and pounding the opposition and each other as they become the key men for their respective teams in this physical and exhausting series.
"People look at the box scores for every player in this league except two," said the Bullets' Elvin Hayes before the championship round commenced. "Paul and Wes never need no stats."
Hayes entered the discussion the way he usually does, not so much to praise others as to point out what a heavy hitter he is in the statistics columns. Yet little did the Big E realize how meaningful his words would become as Washington (the Seattle bunch) came back east last week to take a 2-1 lead in the series.
It was both Unseld's and Silas' third appearance in the NBA finals. Unseld came into this one at age 32 with knees going on 62; Silas arrived at 34, shortly after becoming a grandfather. In the first two games their shot lines read: Unseld six for 15, Silas four for 11—and those numbers do not reflect all of the outrageous rocks they hurled at the basket, or their bewildering array of misses from the three-foot range. Nor do they indicate how greatly Silas' defensive effort on Hayes (plus 12 rebounds) contributed to Seattle's 106-102 victory in Game 1, or how Unseld's stolid presence, his rebounds (15) and assists (5), his picks and screens and his absolute shutdown of 7'1" Seattle Center Marvin Webster (three for 11 shooting) in Game 2 saved a 106-98 decision for the Bullets.
June 4, 1978
In Game 3 last Sunday afternoon, however, Unseld was unable to contain Webster—Marvin scored 20 points to Wes' deuce—and Hayes was defused by Silas, who applied a whole lot of grizzly-bear fronting and siding defense in addition to pulling down a team-high 14 rebounds. Seattle took the lead for good in the fourth period and was able to survive bonehead plays by its two heroes—Dennis Johnson and Silas—to hold on for the 93-92 breakthrough victory.
The potentially disastrous events for the Sonics occurred barely six seconds apart, at the very end of what up to that time had been a rough defensive struggle (Johnson, for example, held Kevin Grevey to 1-for-14 shooting and knocked seven shots back at the Bullet guards). With nine seconds remaining, the Sonics leading 93-90 and the ball under their own basket, Johnson threw an inbounds pass directly to Washington's Tom Henderson, who hit the breakaway layup going the other way to make the score 93-92, with five seconds to go. Next Silas, hurrying an inbounds pass with three seconds left, was called for stepping over the end line, and Washington had one more chance. But Bobby Dandridge's jump shot from deep in the corner curled around the rim and out; Hayes, way up there for the tip-in, never got a chance to make it. The scenario was all too typical of the Bullets; their two stellar forwards, after scoring 44 points between them through three quarters, converted only two of eight in the final period.
"I'm not thinking philosophy or destiny out there," said Dandridge, "but nobody does more pushing than Silas."
"Silas is a hatchet man. I'm being chopped to death," said Hayes.
There were other odd aspects to this series, not the least of which was that it matched third-and fourth-place teams, which is where the Bullets and Sonics finished in their respective conferences in the regular season. There was the weird schedule, too, which dictated that the series start with one game in Seattle, then two games in Landover, Md., two in Seattle, one in Landover, one in Seattle. It was something like the tie-break court switch in tennis, which nobody can figure out either.
Then there was the spectacle of the Bullets, having upset the fussin' and feudin' 76ers in the previous round, becoming the splittin', spittin' image of those same 76ers.
In Game 1, after blowing a 19-point lead and watching Fred Brown score 16 points in the final 9½ minutes in the process of losing to Seattle, the Bullets arrived home to be greeted by a press and public that had not forgotten the team's 0-4 performances in the 1971 and 1975 NBA finals.
Hayes, who reinforced his reputation as basketball's quintessential choker in Game 1 by hiding in the fourth quarter while being terrorized by Silas, accepted media criticism with E-quanimity. "I ain't talkin' to no press," he said. "All that stuff is history. You want history, you can go to the library."
None of the reference books, however, explained why Dandridge scored only six points in the opener when, as he likes to tell his coach, Dick Motta, while skipping practice, "I'm an artist, not a house painter."
Motta, who had witnessed Hayes and Dandridge destroy the flashy Sixers and bring his team what he termed "a victory for the work ethic over earrings," must have wondered how his high-scoring forwards could turn into Marian the Librarian and Sherwin Williams with the NBA title on the line.
Hayes' and Dandridge's response was to blast Unseld. "It's the same old story," said Dandridge. "The other team just leaves Wes alone and double-teams us inside. If Wes were capable of making those 15-footers, we'd be O.K."
And Hayes said, "Our guards get criticized for not playing defense, our forwards for not scoring, but I never hear a word about our center. Mitch Kupchak can shoot. He ought to play more."
Though Unseld referred to these remarks as the work of "a prostitute sports-writer," the quotes were accurate. So, as it turned out, were Hayes' and Dandridge's shots in Game 2.
In the first quarter, the two men out-scored the entire Seattle team 17-16, and the Bullets raced to a 39-23 lead before Guards Gus Williams and Johnson brought the Sonics back to within four points at halftime, 56-52.
The visitors kept zeroing in on the lead in the second half, but each time Hayes—plagued with four fouls—did something to avert disaster: at 68-63, a savage block of a Jack Sikma shot high over the rim; at 70-65, three straight baskets; at 94-88 (now with five fouls), good defense, forcing Sikma into an air-ball; then on offense, drawing two men into the lane and passing to Unseld for an open layup.
More significantly, Hayes and Unseld kept crossing the key laterally to pick off Silas, thus freeing Hayes for 25 points. In fact, Sikma, Silas, Webster and John Johnson—the Sonics' renowned Goldilocks and the Three Bears frontliners—were bounced around so violently underneath that they only scored a combined 36 points.
By himself, Dandridge did his back-to-normal Picasso act all over Johnson's face, backing in, turning and firing for 34 points. More Bullet muscle was supplied by Henderson, a stocky playmaker who mostly drove for 20 points and contributed some stiff defense on Brown.
Having figured a way to liberate Hayes from Silas' close guarding (by beating up on the Sonics' grandpa), Motta announced, "That's our game, Hayes and Dandridge going off tackle. People know where we're going. They're just going to have to stop us."
Which is what the Sonics did in the fourth quarter on Sunday. Dandridge scored one point in the last 14:10 of the game while Silas took personal care of the Silent E.
"I don't notice anything Silas does," said Kupchak, "until I turn around and he has a rebound or a tip, and Elvin isn't anywhere near the ball."
As the series returned to Seattle—where a pro record crowd of 44,000 was expected to witness Game 4 in the King-dome—all the Bullets were noticing Silas, even the librarians and house painters—er, artists.