When it was over, the self-described "funny-looking black kid with red hair and freckles" returned to earth long enough to receive the award as the Most Valuable Player in the NBA playoffs. It had taken the Seattle SuperSonics a mere five games to wrest the championship from Washington, and Dennis Johnson had been operating far above the baskets, where 6'4" guards are seldom seen. He did everything but change the light bulbs in the 24-second clocks. He scored, rebounded, blocked shots and broke up three-man fast breaks—singlehandedly. As he said, "I did just about whatever I thought needed to be done."
As reporters crushed the 24-year-old third-year pro from Pepperdine who so suddenly had the basketball world brazenly comparing him with K. C. Jones, Walt Frazier or any other legendary defensive genius you can name, D.J. smoked a big cigar and wryly praised his teammates: "They deserve the award as much as I do, and they're all funny-looking too."
There was D.J.'s running mate, the balding Gus Williams, a 6'2", 25-year-old who made an art form of the one-man fast break, averaged 28.6 points in the finals and, together with Johnson, scored 256 of Seattle's 505 points in the series. There was 6'11", 23-year-old Center Jack Sikma, who not only took—and returned—as much kidney pummeling as Wes Unseld gave out, but also grabbed just about every big rebound and hit every big shot that one of the guards didn't. Sikma also blocked 16 shots, always, it seemed, at the right time.
And there was Forward John Johnson, looking like a tired old Mississippi bluesman, who led the Sonics in assists and held Bob Dandridge to 43% shooting, 6.7 points below his regular-season average. And the Big Beef—Lonnie Shelton and Paul Silas—who took turns spoiling another playoff for the Bullets' Elvin Hayes. Though the Big E averaged 20 points, he shot only 39%, and his combined fourth-quarter output amounted to a paltry 14 points.
June 10, 1979
Finally, there was Freddie Brown, the marvelous third guard, who has made a career of picking his spots. After playing rather poorly in the previous four games, Brown came off the bench in last Friday's 97-93 clincher to hit seven of 10, four of five in the final 13 minutes from—you guessed it—downtown, to put the Sonics in the lead. Then he poured champagne all over Commissioner Larry O'Brien and tauntingly chanted, "Fine me. Fine me."
That the SuperSonics are now champions of the NBA might shock those who remember the circus act under the whip and whistle of, first, Bill Russell and then Bob Hopkins a few years back. Lenny Wilkens replaced Hopkins in 1977 and built a team that, against these same Bullets a year ago, was good enough to come within a game of winning the title. By last week it was a superb club with relentless defense, a running, guard-oriented offense and backcourt talent unequaled in the NBA. "The difference from last year is maturity," said Wilkens. "Last year we were so young, we played on emotion. There were questions. Now we run strictly on confidence."
For Seattle, the emphasis has been on defense above all, and the final was a match between the league's two most physical teams. As John Johnson said, "Offense is like the weather. It comes and goes. Defense is constant. You don't need to be on. You just need to work."
Seattle defensed the Bullets brilliantly, four times holding them below 100 points, 18.7 fewer than their regular-season per-game average of 114.9. And unlike other so-called "defensive" teams, the Sonics did this not by slowing the game down to a frustrating crawl but by textbook, body-hugging defense. They were helped, of course, by prolonged miserable shooting of the Bullet guards, who were outscored and outshot by Seattle's 303 to 177 and 48% to 38%. This allowed the Sonics to drop a guard back to double-team Hayes or Dandridge whenever either had the ball.
"You know when I thought we had them?" Wilkens said. "When we came back from 18 points down in the fourth quarter in Game 1 in Washington. I really never worried after that." Seattle lost the opener 99-97 after Dennis Johnson barely fouled Larry Wright while sensationally blocking his last-second shot with the score tied.
Of course, a gambler who wanted to bet that the Sonics would win the next four would have found a few takers in Washington. Bullet fans were confident their team could repeat, although no team since the 1969 Celtics had been able to, and no team without Bill Russell had done it since 1954.
Washington had already escaped two brushes with defeat, having won seven games after losing its home-court advantage to both Atlanta and San Antonio. And the feeling was that Hayes, upon whom the team depends so much, was stronger than ever, even though during the San Antonio series he was heard to wonder, "How did Bill Russell stand the pressure enough to win 11 championships in 13 years? Will somebody please tell me? How?"
Hayes' 11 points in the first quarter of Game 2 were enough to keep the Bullets close for a while. But he scored only one point in the second period, and he and Dandridge were held to a collective 14 in the second half, and the Bullets lost their home-court advantage yet again, 92-82.
The last vestiges of Bullet optimism were swept away not long after the opening tip-off for Game 3 in Seattle's Kingdome. With a crowd of 35,928 Sonic fans making a gleeful din, the Sonics played their finest single quarter of the postseason, shooting 65% and opening a 13-point lead on the way to a 105-95 win. The double-teamed Bullets shot 30% in the first period and 20% in the second.
"At halftime I saw we shot 25% and I thought the stat man had gone haywire," Bullet Coach Dick Motta said after the game. "Twenty-five percent? I thought we at least shot twenty-six."
Hayes missed 15 of 20 shots in the game and said, "Oh, no. There's nothing to worry about. I was just missing." So, too, were Kevin Grevey and Wright, who were held by D.J. to two baskets in 12 shots, which forced Motta to move Dandridge to guard for a spell. He had no real success against D.J. either, who scored 17 points with nine rebounds and two blocks. He and Williams, who scored 31, had so much fun that during a third-quarter timeout they stayed on the court laughing and shooting hoops.
Watching Seattle toy with his Bullets from his perch on one knee in front of the bench, Motta wore the look of a man who had seen the future and found it grim. "What can I change?" he said. "I change knees every once in a while. My guard combinations? I'm into next year's already. I'm taking probably the best forward in the league and moving him right out of position. That's scrambling."
With the exception of Hayes and Unseld, who ran on what Motta calls his "62-year-old knees" for 47 minutes only to have Sikma score 21 points and grab 17 rebounds, the Bullets were no longer trying to hide their concern. "I'm being asked, 'What's wrong with the guards?' 10 times a day," said Grevey. "If we need points from outside, let's run a few plays for us. Why is Motta complaining about the guards when all our plays are for the forwards?"
Said Dandridge, "When I have to play guard we're conceding that we can't handle their big guard. I can do basically whatever I want from the forward position, but out there I'm hampered. And they've got Elvin figured out. Lenny Wilkens has done his homework. And it might seem that Lenny Wilkens is ahead of us, two games to one."
Game 4 turned out to be the big one. "Frazier and Ali," said John Johnson. "The Tha-rilla in See-attle." Before it ended with the Sonics winning 114-112 in overtime, 59 fouls would be called, and Hayes, Dandridge, Unseld and Sikma all fouled out.
It was while Hayes, who scored only four of his 18 points in the second half, was on the bench in the fourth quarter that the Bullets came from seven points down on hot shooting by Charles Johnson, a guard, and a final get-out-of-the-way layin by Unseld. That put the game into overtime at 104-104.
It was fitting that Unseld should be the hero at that point; he had played brilliantly, with 16 points and 16 rebounds in 50 minutes. But in the overtime the heroes were Gus and D.J., scoring eight of Seattle's 10 points to finish with 36 and 32 respectively, and Sikma, scoring the other two on a pair of high-pressure free throws with 39 seconds left. That left Sikma with 20 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks, only one more than D.J., who notched his fourth at 0:03 on a 20-footer by Grevey that would have sent the game into another overtime.
"I think the knockout punch was delivered tonight," said Brown.
Before the frothing Game 5 home crowd in Landover, Hayes had a capital first half with 20 points and staked Washington to an early 11-point lead, its biggest since Game 1. As poorly as the Sonics played, shooting 38%, they were lucky to be down by only eight, 51-43, at halftime. Then Wilkens told his players to ease up, slow down and wait for the open man, as they had all series. As Hayes struggled through another disappointing second half—nine points—the game eventually turned for Seattle.
With 1:32 left in the third period, the Bullets held what appeared to be a comfortable lead, 69-60, despite having lost both starting guards, Grevey and Tom Henderson, with injuries. But then D.J., Silas, Shelton and the unsinkable Freddie Brown ran off 12 straight points, and the Sonics took the lead at 72-69. The Bullets never led after that but kept the pressure on through the final seconds.
After the game, Brown stood off in a corner of the locker room and wept—"This is heaven for me," he said—and various Sonics sprayed champagne while Williams and D.J. puffed on their giant cigars. They had scored 23 and 21 points respectively, and Wilkens was saying that in his 18 years in the NBA he had never seen a backcourt combination "that affected more things, offensively and defensively, than Dennis and Gus."
Sikma was sprawled in a chair, grinning, having exhausted himself—and Unseld—while scoring 12 points and taking down 17 boards. An ugly red welt curled halfway around his neck.
"Pretty tough out there," someone said, pointing to the welt.
"This?" said Sikma. "This is from everyone hugging me after the game."