It was approximately one year ago that the Washington Bullets, who were on their way to the end of the rainbow, found out that the Atlanta Hawks, who were just back from oblivion, had a talon or two. That important discovery obviously passed unheeded or was forgotten, or both, for it wasn't until last Sunday, at the end of seven breathless, tough playoff games, that the defending champion Bullets could breathe freely once more, having somehow survived the Hawks in the NBA's Eastern Conference semifinals. The Bullets are still trying to figure out if they won or lost the most punishing playoff series this side of the National Football League.
After Washington and Atlanta had flogged each other through six memorable contests, perhaps it was simply inevitable that the older, wiser and more experienced Bullets would prevail in the deciding game in Landover, Md., where, among 19,035 others, Jimmy, Rosalynn and Amy—the dribbling Carter family—watched the home team gasp to victory by a score of 100-94.
For the winners, this meant the opportunity to gather their weary bones and bruised egos and attempt to walk upright to the next round in defense of their NBA title. For the Hawks, well, Heaven can wait.
Like every other game in this playoff, the seventh was contested in a rather savage corner of hell until Elvin Hayes and Bob Dandridge took control just when it seemed the hustling visitors were ready to steal away with another thoroughly amazing victory.
May 6, 1979
First it was Hayes scoring 13 points in the third quarter to hold off the Hawks and give the Bullets a 75-69 lead. Then it was Dandridge taking over for 17 points in the fourth. While the pitiful Bullet guards were being shuttled in and out and shooting 6 for 29—"I felt like the Easter bunny looking for eggs," said Washington Coach Dick Motta—Hayes and Dandridge were collecting 39 and 29 points and 15 and 10 rebounds respectively.
Still the courageous Hawks came on. They tied the score 13 times before the end of the third period. They fell behind by eight points early in the fourth, but with their two shooting purists, John Drew and Terry Furlow, sharing 45 points, they tied it up again at 83-all with 6:35 to go. That is where they stalled, only because Hayes dropped another one of those marvelous turnaround jumpers, Dandridge made two free throws, and then Dandridge swished another high-arching jumper from the corner, making it 89-83 Washington. Sayonara, Hawks.
"I told E he was the greatest to ever do it," said Furlow, the squawking Hawk himself, after the game. "And Dandridge—he wasn't making shots. He was burying those babies."
And so he was. Three times in the final four minutes the visitors managed to come within four points. Each time Bobby D took the Hawks by the feathers and shook them to their souls with an incomprehensible basket—once on a running, kicking one-hander that Drew still may be trying to track down.
Later Hayes called the Hawks some things. "Winners, terrific players, a great team," Hayes said. "It is tough somebody had to lose this series."
It should not have taken the Bullets so long to realize that their tormentors, ballyhooed as the mechanical creation of that raging martinet, Hubie Brown, were instead a collection of dogged, talented opportunists; that these Hawks could scratch and peck; and that this was a hungry, dedicated and dangerous bunch simply itching to prove something at somebody's expense.
The first warning came in the playoffs of 1978 when the Hawks roughed up Washington more than a little bit before losing in their mini-series. Then the teams split four games this season with both winning once on the other's court, and never was the margin larger than four points. While the Bullets rested for a week after the season with a bye, thanks to having the NBA's best record, the Hawks took apart Houston's high-powered offense, holding the Rockets 15 points below their scoring average.
Still, when the Atlanta-Washington series opened two weeks ago on national television, the Hawks were something of a mystery, in part because that was the first time CBS had seen fit to feature the team in Brown's three seasons as coach.
In light of this inattention and Atlanta owner Ted Turner's meager payroll, the fabrication has spread that the team is nothing but a collection of unskilled migrants who gladly suffer Brown's bellowing tutelage rather than be cast aside to peddle peanuts on the Georgia highways. Nothing could be further from the truth. No talent? Power Forward Dan Roundfield, shot blocker Tree Rollins and Defensive Guard Eddie Johnson are among the best in the league at their specialties. No scoring? Drew and Furlow are exquisite one-on-one operators. Mindless sycophants? Armond Hill is Princeton. Tom McMillen, for Godsakes, is Oxford.
"Talent is all relative in the NBA," says McMillen. "What we have achieved is more talent per player than anybody. This is because Hubie breaks down our inertia and drives it out of us."
The Hawks didn't contain Washington too well in the opener, losing 103-89, but in Game 2 they embarrassed the Bullets 107-99 in Landover to tie up the series. Back home they lost a slowed-down 89-77; then, toward the end of Game 4, it appeared the Hawks would deadlock the series again when they controlled the ball with seven seconds left and the score tied at 109. But, inexplicably, Johnson held the ball over his head for three seconds and then dribbled for three more. By the time he finally passed to McMillen in the corner, the Rhodes scholar was completely open, but the horn had sounded and the game had escaped into an overtime, from which the Bullets emerged with a 120-118 victory.
At this pause in the proceedings, the Bullets had a stranglehold lead of three games to one and were all set to sew it up on their home court. Dandridge had scored 112 points so easily over the helpless Drew that, Brown said, "Pick is playing H-O-R-S-E with himself." Hayes and Wes Unseld were having their own way amid the ferocious banging underneath the baskets. But the funny thing was that everybody from Capitol Hill to Peachtree Street knew the series was far from over.
In truth, the teams were as close as this: the score had been virtually tied with six minutes to go in all four games. Only the Bullets' ability down the stretch—the combined fourth-quarter scores totaled 112-87 for Washington—had enabled them to bail out of deep water.
So now came the sniping—a practice that was de rigueur in the playoffs long before Furlow contracted Muhammad Ali Mouth.
Bullet Guard Tom Henderson, a former Hawk whom Brown got rid of 2½ years ago, accused the Atlanta coach of blowing Game 4 by confusing Johnson and causing him to freeze. "Sure, Johnson should have shot," Henderson said. "But the man has been yelling at him and yanking him in and out of games all season."
Brown refused to publicly acknowledge Henderson's remarks beyond pointing out that his team knew whom to foul (Henderson) near the end of the overtime and who would miss (Henderson) at least one of two clinching free throws (which he did) to give the Hawks another chance to tie the game (which they didn't).
Furlow, on the other hand, was not so discreet. A 6'4" reserve guard whose boundless potential is exceeded only by his personal regard for it, the 24-year-old heretofore has been known mostly as Magic Johnson's recruiter at Michigan State, Julius Erving's roommate at Philadelphia and Coach Bill Fitch's whipping boy at Cleveland. But last week he unleashed a triple-barreled fusillade—two hands, one mouth—which made him the focal point of the entire series.
In a period of three days Furlow became an authentic media monster by first coming off the bench to lead the Hawks to two stunning victories with 35 points, and then firing such scattershot as:
•"Hayes is a cheap-shot artist. Write that."
•"Unseld is a bully. He has bullied his way through this league all his life."
•"The Bullets are crybabies. They bitch and moan all game. They have no class. They've got nobody who can stop me. I am going to dominate their guards physically and psychologically."
The Bullets started off Game 5 as if they would end the series right then. Almost before the Hawks bussed in off the Beltway, Washington had scored 34 points in the first quarter, the team's best period so far. "We should have kept kicking them till sundown and cut their heads off," Motta said. But late in the quarter the Capital Centre clock went blank, causing an 18-minute delay which the Hawks used to catch their breath and Furlow used to begin what he called his "verbal aggression."
Jogging along the baseline to stay loose, Furlow kept muttering to Kevin Grevey things like "Hello? You're in trouble now. Every time I get it, I'm looking for you. It's gonna be in your face."
Though he didn't start to rumble just then, Furlow carried out his pledge with eight points in the third quarter and eight more in the fourth. With 5:46 remaining in the game, the Hawks led 99-90, but then youthful jitters set in, they made but one basket in the last 4:08 and the Bullets whittled away.
With 14 seconds left, the Hawk margin was 105-103, time for both teams to go to their meal tickets for the deciding pas de deux. That would be Dandridge juking along the endline and Roundfield flying through the air for the block. Sure enough, the most valuable Hawk knocked away Dandridge's 15-footer only to watch the ball sail right back to the shooter. Dandridge jumped again. So Round-field jumped again, forcing the Bullet to change his arc. This time the shot bounced off the rim, and the victory went to the Hawks, 107-103.
Returning to the madhouse Omni in Atlanta for Game 6, the Bullets still appeared not to be taking Furlow—or the Hawks—seriously. But early on, during a loose-ball melee, Unseld nearly separated Furlow from his life by locking him in a bear hug. The enraged Furlow tore away, fists balled, and the two men had to be separated—"Lucky for one of us," the 6'7", 260-pound Unseld coldly said later.
A rejuvenated Drew scored 14 points as Atlanta surged to a 48-42 halftime lead. Still, Brown read his basic riot act to both Drew and Furlow in the dressing room, at one point ordering the latter to strip off his uniform.
It was another Brown harangue, however (this one on court in full earshot of blushing longshoremen), that may have turned the game. Roundfield, admittedly "drifting" through the contest, had been of little consequence until late in the third period when Brown began baiting him from the sidelines. That was enough for Roundfield. Instantly he sprinted after a Bullet fast break, caught up and literally threw Dandridge into the photographers' section and Dandridge's short jumper nearly to Plains. Roundfield finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds; the steady, underrated Steve Hawes outplayed Hayes for 14 of each; Furlow continued to murder the Bullet guards; and Drew and Johnson evenly divided 44 points, Fast Eddie running down the clock toward a 104-86 rout which sent the series back to Maryland.
"They think we are invincible no longer," said Dandridge, whose team shot a humiliating 32%. "Now they've generated a whole team of players who think they are players."
Whether that was said with respect or not hardly mattered. What was important was that in the last quarters of Games 5 and 6 Dandridge and Hayes had combined for just 15 points.
"We're fronting, keeping them out of the box [the lane] and frustrating them," explained Brown, whose Hawk defense had limited the champions to 15 points a game fewer than their season average. "We are rising to the occasion to play a great team some great basketball. I only hope this series is not spoiled by one of us playing badly on Sunday."
Certainly nobody will have to live with that ignominy. At the end the Hawks knew they had achieved parity with the champions; at least they had come as close as a loser ever could.
During a time-out in Game 6, Motta had screamed at his players, "The Hawks have had their shot. They've had it. They can't play any better." But, of course, he knew otherwise. Near the end of Game 7, Motta walked down the court. He congratulated Brown, Roundfield, Furlow and all the rest. And he said later, "They have been great for basketball."
For the Atlanta Hawks, Heaven will wait.