Really, now, how better to describe the NBA's late, and in some ways lamentable, regular season than to say it featured the 11th commandment of Moses Malone—Thou shalt not steal my rebound—the Looking for Mr. Good Bird, the emergence of Dave Cowens as a "coach" and Lloyd Free as a "star." Also, the Richie Powers Memorial Double-header, the Bob McAdoo pack-up-your-troubles-in-your-old-kit-bag show and the New York Knicks and New Orleans Jazz sleepwalking festival.
Obladi. Oblada. In professional basketball, life goes on.
And on. And on. And so, now, the playoffs. Certainly there are enough candidates for the finals from the East and West to satisfy all tastes. For aficionados of team play, joie de vivre, hustle and 48-minute effort, there are the Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets and Kansas City Kings. For those who are of the star-wars and lonely-rich-guy persuasion, there are the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets. If one prefers to avoid watching defense at all costs, there are the San Antonio Spurs. And how about primal scream therapy? The NBA presents in living, screaming color the New Jersey Nets and Kevin ("They're out to get me") Loughery. The finalists will not be known, of course, until Brent Musberger opens the envelope, one hopes, sometime before August. But, alas, most of the signs point away from these teams and back toward the replay of last year's championship series between the Washington Bullets and the Seattle SuperSonics.
Were it not for the fact that no team since the Bill Russell Celtics of 10 years ago has won back-to-back championships, the Bullets would be overwhelming favorites to repeat, despite losing their last three games. History aside, they should win it all again—and this time more easily, defeating, say, Atlanta in five, Philly in six and Seattle in five—simply because they are the strongest, deepest, most confident, most adaptable and best team in the NBA. "To win twice, you have to be really mean to do that," says Indiana Coach Bob Leonard. Oh, yes. The Bullets may be the meanest team in the NBA as well.
The experience of winning the title in 1978 on the road (Washington overcame the home-court advantages of San Antonio, Philadelphia and, in the seventh and final game, Seattle) has sustained the club through this season, in which the Bullets were one of only two teams (the other was Seattle, 21-20) to have a winning record (23-18) away from home. When Golden State Guard John Lucas speaks of Washington as having the "smartest front line in the game," he is referring not only to Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld and Bob Dandridge, all of whom put together marvelous seasons, but also to reserves Mitch Kupchak and Greg Ballard, whose enthusiasm, passing and offensive rebounding would make them starters, not to mention stars, in most other cities.
Coach Dick Motta's offense is designed for playmaker Tom Henderson to pound the ball inside, where Hayes is automatic on the turnaround jumper and Dandridge administers more one-on-one "facials" than anyone since Helena Rubenstein. In the Bullet system, the 31-year-old small forward known as "Pick," who seems to sleep through half the games, has become the NBA's most complete player. When aroused, Dandridge shoots, passes, defends and rebounds, and in last year's playoffs he even played some guard.
Elsewhere in the backcourt is shooter Kevin Grevey or whippets Charley Johnson and Larry Wright, or even rejuvenated former All-Star Phil Chenier. Motta says he has nine starters, but somewhere in this plethora of talent the coach has lost count.
Nagging injuries to Kupchak and Grevey may be cause for concern, but of more significance is the Bullets' record (7-5) against three of their possible Eastern rivals: Central Division winner San Antonio, which has never won a game at the Capitol Centre in Landover, Md.; Houston, whose Malone gets gang-attacked and beat upon something awful by the Washington musclemen; and Atlanta, which Dandridge takes apart all by himself.
The survivor of the Atlanta-Houston opening-round mini-series will meet the Bullets, but by that time the magnificent runaway MVP, Malone, may be too exhausted to stand upright after the grabbing, clawing Hawks get through with him. As for the Hawks—in particular, John Drew and Tree Rollins, who are even money to foul out of a H-O-R-S-E game—they may be rendered deaf from the frequent, bellowing harangues of Coach Hubie Brown, who takes a backseat to no one (not even Loughery) in anguished noisemaking.
In reality, only the Atlantic Division runner-up 76ers appear to be a threat to the Bullets before the championship round. This assumes that destiny's fallen darlings, from Dr. Julius Erving on down to Darryl Dawkins, play well in the mini-series against their old doubleheader buddies, the Nets (surely you recall the New Jersey-Philadelphia game, which had to be replayed in part because of Powers' handing out two too many technical fouls), then defeat their running, gunning mirror images, the Spurs, in the following round.
"This team hasn't played to its potential because of injuries and a laissez-faire approach," says Philadelphia General Manager Pat Williams, "but I think everyone still fears the Sixers."
In the last few weeks, after injured Guard Doug Collins returned to the lineup and Erving reasserted himself, the Sixers were fearsome, getting 11 wins in a 13-game rampage down the stretch. But Collins was declared out of the playoffs because of a stress fracture in his left foot, so it will be up to Erving to inspire his teammates, as well as to contribute his own take-over skills.
The 76ers appear capable of handling the Nets whenever they wish, and they won the season series from the Spurs 3-1, "without our two centers and without Doug," as Coach Billy Cunningham points out. On the other hand, Collins has been the only Sixer able to contain San Antonio's incredible point machine, George Gervin. On still a third hand (in the NBA anything is possible), the Iceman's run for his second straight scoring title has come at the expense of the Spurs' vaunted passing game. Gervin isn't passing much anymore. In addition, he has criticized Coach Doug Moe for not giving him more playing time. Having recently lost five of six home games, the Spurs are hardly jingling into the playoffs—where they usually collapse anyway. As Moe so eloquently puts it, "When things are going bad, they ain't going good."
Just as San Antonio could be emotionally unequipped to beat Philadelphia, the Sixers (especially without Collins) may be physically unequipped to defeat Washington. This is cruel irony, in that Cunningham traded for defensive specialist Bobby Jones and quick Guard Eric Money with the express purpose of containing the Bullets' Dandridge and equalizing the Bullets' backcourt speed, respectively. Philadelphia beat the champions three out of four this season: once after squandering a 32-point lead; once without Erving, Collins or Money; and the last time at Landover when the Doctor was having one of his better nights. With Collins playing, the 76ers-Bullets might have been a classic series. Without him, not likely.
What everyone was able to witness in the Western Conference was a ferocious rumble right into the final weekend when the Pacific Division-winning Super-Sonics emerged with the best record (52-30), even though they finished the season with a shooting percentage (.468) that was the third-worst in the league. What the team lacks offensively, however, is more than made up for on defense; the Sonics led the league in lowest average point yield (103.9).
The Seattle defense takes over the moment opponents cross the center line and continues—unlike most teams' big-man fortifications—from the outside in. Dennis (D.J.) Johnson and Gus Williams are the finest pair of backcourt defenders in the sport, Johnson depending on his size (6'4"), strength and jumping ability to neutralize the big scorers, Williams relying on quicksilver hands and anticipation out front.
Down low, Jack Sikma and Lonnie Shelton give the Sonics the kind of muscle more often displayed in the local aircraft plants, while John Johnson, an exquisite passer, and Paul Silas, the aged bear, share the other forward spot. When Seattle lost Center Tom LaGarde early, Coach Lenny Wilkens moved Sikma to the pivot, where he averaged 12 rebounds. Shelton rapidly took over some of the scoring load (he hit 13 straight shots in one game) and the Sonics proceeded to lead the league in attendance—the Kingdome and that lovable buffoon of a mascot, T. Wheedle, helped—as well as to disprove the theory that their playoff performance of last spring was a case of astonishing luck.
Early in March, trouble appeared in the form of Silas' criticism that the Sonics were "a Cinderella team...built on emotion...but without foundation" and in the specter of Dennis Johnson's pouting about his contract. But a successful (5-2) late road trip laid the sniping to rest, and now only Downtown Fred Brown's fractured ring finger (on his non-shooting hand) might hinder the Sonics.
Until the championship round, Seattle would seem to overmatch any likely opponent. The Sonics have more quickness, more rebounding, more depth, a lot more defense than anybody else in the West and the intangible quality of knowing each other well, liking each other (gasp!) and understanding what this tournament is all about.
"We weren't respected last season," says D.J., whose complete-game qualities make him the best 43-percent-shooting player who ever lived. "But our adrenaline flowed into momentum, a piece stuck in everybody, and it's all still with us."
Whatever that means, it translates into trouble for the opposition. Among these are Midwest Division champ Kansas City, whose spectacular infant backcourt of Otis Birdsong and Phil Ford is possibly a year away; Denver, which, lacking injured George McGinnis, is a player away; and the Bill Walton-less Trail Blazers from Portland, who are both a year and a redheaded player behind.
That leaves the Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns, both of whom must count on the whim and/or availability of a single man to prolong their seasons.
If Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can unwind from his sad malaise, not to mention the blistering attacks of a certain reviewer named Wilt Chamberlain, he should be motivated enough to carry the Lakers past their mini-series. By the same token, if the red-hot Suns can assimilate the reactivated Truck Robinson, who missed 15 games with a viral infection, into the complex workings of their family plan, they should put away the tough and much-improved Trail Blazers, then defeat Kansas City to come face-to-face with the men from Seattle.
In Los Angeles, Forward Adrian Dantley has displayed his muscles a lot and Jamaal Wilkes, who is about to become a two-time free agent, ran into a late-season shooting slump, and the truth is the Lakers have no rebounders to help Abdul-Jabbar on the glass and no guards to help Stormin' Norman Nixon in the backcourt. In defending his recent non-dominating performances, Kareem has declared that players are better today than in Chamberlain's time and "when a lion makes a kill, it doesn't growl or roar."
A couple of other references to the animal kingdom added to the Laker woes. "A dog" is what Abdul-Jabbar was allegedly called—there was a quick denial—by Coach Jerry West, who himself is surely a lame duck. Then Chamberlain came hurtling off the volleyball court and into the fray like a yapping hyena. Wilt, a noted authority on the subject, accused Kareem of loafing. "Moses Malone must have dunked over him seven or eight times," said Chamberlain. "Tom Owens embarrasses him. Look what Unseld did to him. It seems like all the centers are doing that to Kareem. The inside is his office. He should own that area...."
After their humbling first-round disappearance from the playoffs a year ago, the Suns are due for some postseason victories. "This time we're surging instead of limping," says Phoenix G.M. Jerry Colangelo. And, sure enough, the Suns won their final eight games, with the veteran Garfield Heard admirably filling in for Robinson.
Phoenix has the NBA's most mobile center in Alvan Adams, the most elegant forward in Walter Davis and a nonpareil guard in Paul Westphal, who finished in the top 10 in both scoring and assists, and they would win any three-on-three contest. Yet the Suns' long-range chances probably depend more on the consistency of their no-name bench, no-namely Mike Bratz, Joel Kramer, Hound McLean, Alvin Scott and Bayard Forrest, who collectively answer to "the McDowell Street Irregulars."
Though the team won't win any Gold Glove awards—Coach John McLeod's "trapazone" regularly earns technical fouls—this is a dangerous outfit that seems to be peaking at just the right moment. Despite the Suns' speed and savvy, however, their running game came a cropper against Seattle three times before Phoenix finally nailed the Sonics in their last meeting when Davis got 40 points in an overtime thriller. The Western finals may be just as thrilling, but Seattle should do the chilling.
About the possible championship round matching two "Washington" teams—which split four games during the season by a total point differential of one—count it, one—point, the Sonics' Downtown Brown says, "Don't be fooling yourself. You know it all boils down to us against Washington one more time. Both teams have great people all the way through the lineup. They're deeper, but we make up for that with our backcourt. Look, Gus is unstoppable, D.J. is finally D.J., only better. Then you got myself, whom nobody knows how to guard yet. What do I think? I think it will be wild and picturesque all over again."