Pro Basketball History 1976-79 (Part 3)


Bored Historian
Aug 26, 2011
1978-79 The Super Sonics

The next year, it was the Sonics’ turn.

The Blazers were taken out of the picture when Bill Walton’s foot injury turned out to be worse, at least according to Bill Walton, than was originally thought and he sat out the whole season, partially due to the foot and particularly because f his ongoing dispute with the Blazer’s management, which wanted him to come back and play. They still had enough good players that Coach Jack Ramsay could guide them to a 45-37 record but they were not of championship caliber. Five of the six teams in the Pacific Division and the Blazers finished fourth. The only one with a losing record was the Warriors who had lost the aging and well-travelled Rick Barry to Houston under free agency. The Sonics lost Marvin Webster for the same reason to the Knicks but obtained Lonnie Shelton as compensation and hardly skipped a beat, improving their record to 52-30 and winning the division. “The Sonics still had the NBA’s best backcourt in Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson. When Tommy LaGarde, the new center, went down with a knee injury, Jack Sikma moved to the pivot and the team didn’t miss a beat en route to 52 wins and the Pacific title.” (“The Sports Encyclopedia: Pro Basketball”). Phoenix was 50-32 and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Lakers were third with 47-35.

The Bullets “led by one of the best front lines ever, with Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Bob Dandridge, backed up by Mitch Kupchak and Greg Ballard, the defending champs” put together the best record in the league at 54-28. The 76ers traded Lloyd Free to San Diego and George McGinnis to Denver, (for Bobby jones) and lost Doug Collins to a foot injury after 47 games, causing them to slide to 47-35. Nobody else in the Atlantic Division had a winning record. San Antonio (48-34) won the Central Division in what would have been a great race with Houston (47-35) and Atlanta (46-36) if divisional pennants meant anything in the NBA. The Kansas City Kings won the central Division with a 48-34 record, nipping the Nuggets (47-35). Everyone else was sub-.500.

The Sonics rolled over the Lakers 4 games to 1 but had to make a comeback against the Suns to make it into the finals. Kareem did his best for L.A. with 28.8p/12.2r and some of the pieces were there: Jamaal, (Keith) Wilkes, Norm Nixon, Adrian Dantley, Ron Boone, even 34 year old Lou Hudson. But the whole was less than the sum of its parts. Gus Williams went off for 30.8 ppg and Dennis Johnson added 21.6.

It looked as if they would have as easy a time against the Suns and they had had with the Lakers. They won the first two games in Seattle, 108-93 and 103-97. Williams was still draining it for 27 in game 1, the only player with more than 20 points. The Sonics were +11 on the boards and won the first three quarters before halving the fourth. Paul Westphal scored 29 and Walter Davis 25 for the Suns in game 2, helping their team to a 28-21 first quarter lead. But the Sonics put 6 guys in double figures. Williams had only 16 but John Johnson got 21 and Seattle won the last three quarters for the 2-0 lead.

But then the Suns ripped off three wins in a row, 113-103, 100-91 and 99-93. A 22-14 third quarter in game 3 turned an 60-61 game around. Williams scored 35 but Westphal had 25, Davis 22 and Robinson 21. A 31-24 opening quarter and a 19-14 finish keyed the game 4 win. Both teams had four men in double figures and two in the 20’s but the Suns got more from their bench. Their single digit scorers out-scored Seattle’s 24-15. Then the Suns took the lead in the series, thanks to a 33-25 final quarter. The box score is again incredibly balanced with Westphal getting 27, Johnson 24 and each team having four other double-figure scorers, the last two with 10 points in each case. One of them was Williams, who fouled out.

The Sonics now had to pull themselves out of the fire and they did it with two narrow wins, 106-105 and 114-110. The one point game was wildly back and forth, almost like a pro wrestling match: 27-33; 28-17; 22-35 and 29-20. Incredibly, the Sonics had 6 players in double figures and the Suns had only three but the three were Westphal with 29 and Davis with 26, along with one Joel Kramer with 19. They also had seven other players score.

The finale was close all the way: 28-29 after a quarter, 57-53 at the half and 82-75 after three. Davis (26) and Westphal (25), again led the Suns who had two other players in doubles and seven other scorers. But a Seattle triumvirate of Sikma (33), Williams (29) and Johnson (26) carried the day. Rick Barry, whose Rockets were out of it so he could make some extra bucks as a CBS commentator said: “The Sonics will win because they believe they will win.” Lenny Wilkens shared his confidence: “Last year we were so young, we played on emotion. There were questions. Now we run strictly on confidence.”

Despite having the league’s best record, the Bullets were feeling the pressure of repeating, something that hadn’t been done in a decade. Elvin Hayes: “It’s all so different from last season, when we were relaxed . The pressure. The mental part. Everyone’s after us. Defending this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

It’s started out much as the Sonics’ run to the finals had, with Washington winning three of the first four games against the Hawks. The Bullets won the opener 103-89, thanks to a 32-13 final quarter. Hayes (31p/15r) and Dandridge (30/10) led the way. Atlanta won game 2, 107-99. This time the fourth quarter was theirs, 30-21. Dandridge scored 36 but Hayes was only 5 for 17 and scored just 10 points. Dan Roundfield and Eddie Johnson led Atlanta with just 17 points but they had six men in double figures. The bullets responded with a 89-77 win. Again, the margin was the fourth quarter, 28-16. Nobody for either team scored 20 points. Hayes had 19p/14r and Unseld 12p/15r while the Hawks shot 38%. John drew was their leading scorer with 13. Then the Bullets pulled out game 4, 120-118 in overtime. Hayes had 29/17, Unseld 11/15 and Dandridge scored 31. Roundfield led the Hawks with 22p/18r. The Bullets had a 3-1 lead and seemed to be on a roll.

But the Hawks came back to tie the series with wins of 107-103 and 104-86. The Hawks overcame a 27-34 first quarter with a 29-21 second quarter and then clinched game 5 with a 26-23 fourth. Hayes had 26p/14r and Dandridge 24 but the Hawks had four guys who scored between 17 and 19 points and out-rebounded the Bullets by 10. Atlanta pulled away with a 56-44 second half in game 6. Hayes had 24p/11r but didn’t get any help. John Drew and Eddie Johnson each had 22 for the winners. But the Bullets pulled out game 7, 100-94 and moved on. Hayes had a monster 39p/15r game and Dandridge almost matched it with 29p/10r. Nobody else was in double figures but that was enough and the bullets moved on.

They almost didn’t go any further. This time they were the team that fell behind 1-3. The San Antonio Spurs blew them out of their own place 118-97 in game one. It was close at the half but a 63-45 second half shocked the home crowd. George Gervin had 34 points, James Silas 28 and Larry Kenon had 24p/21r. Hayes had 22p/20r and Dandridge 25p/8r and Unseld 14p/19r. The Bullets came back to win game 2 in a blow-out of their own, 115-95. Down at halftime this time they had the huge second half, 66-42. Unseld had his best game in years, making 12 of 13 shots, scoring 26 points and pulling down 22 rebounds. Dandridge had 22p/10r and Hayes 15p/10r as the Bullets ruled the boards, 57-34. Kenon led the Spur with 25 points while Gervin had 22. Finally they had a close game in San Antonio, which the Spurs won 116-114. Gervin had 29p/11r and Silas 23. Dandridge had 28 and Grevey 27. Hayes missed 13 of 20 shots but had 23 rebounds. Then the Spurs also won game 4, 118-104, spurred by a 34-23 third quarter and a 42 point explosion by Gervin. Hayes led the Bullets but with only 23.

The Bullets saved their change to repeat with three straight wins by almost the same score, 107-103, 108-100 and 107-105. The Bullets seemed to have a safe lead, 84-70 after three quarters of game 5 but barely held on to win. Gervin was held to 28 while Hayes had 24p/22r and Grevey scored 23. A 30-22 final quarter decided game 6. This time Gervin only got 20 while Hayes dominated with 25p/14r and Dandridge added 20. Another fourth quarter rally, (31-23) decided game 7 and the series. Gervin reignited for 42 points but Dandridge nearly matched that with 37. Hayes was 25p/15r but Larry Kenon had 23p/11r. The Bullets won because they had five double figure scorers to three.

Dick Motta: “I about passed out. Now I know what Vince Lombardi meant. To get there is tough. To stay there is tougher.”

It didn’t seem tougher for much of game 1 against the Sonics. The Bullets built up an 18 point third quarter lead. Motta decided at that point to substitute to rest some of his starters after two arduous seven game series in the quarter and semi-finals and Seattle almost wriggled off the hook. From “The NBA Finals”: “The score was tied in the last seconds of regulation when D.J. attempted to block Larry Wright’s jumper. Whistles sounded and Wright was awarded two free throws with no time on the clock. He made both, (to win it 99-97), but the Bullets had used up their quotient of luck and wins. It was about to become Dennis Johnson’s series. Wilkens just knew it. “You know when I thought we had them?” He would say later. “When we came back from 18 points down in the third quarter in Game 1 in Washington, I never really worried after that.” He had little reason to as the Sonics won four games in a row to win the title.

The Bullets led at halftime of the second game, 52-49 but the visitors pulled gradually away in the second half to win 92-82. Williams and Johnson scored 43 of Seattle’s points, (47%). Dandridge and Hayes scored 41 of Washington’s (50%). Back on the west coast, Seattle built up an 81-66 third quarter lead and coasted to a 105-95 win. Washington shot 30% from the field. Williams had 31, Johnson 17 and Jack Sikma had 21p/17r. Dandridge had 28, Unseld 23p/14r but Hayes missed 15 of 20 shots but still had 19p/14r. The Sonics won game 4 in OT, 114-112. It was a back and fourth game with Seattle up by 8 after 1, down by 1 at the half, then leading by 3 after three. Williams and Johnson were dominant with 36 and 32 points. Gus also had 13 assists while Dennis had 10 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. Sikma had 20p/17r. They overcame a balanced Bullets attack that had nobody with 20 points but 6 guys in doubles to only three for the winners. There were 59 fouls called in this game and Hayes, Dandridge, Unseld and Sikma all fouled out.

That situation reversed itself in the final game. The Sonics had 6 guys in doubles to 4 and won the championship with a 97-93 win, A 31-24 final quarter deciding it. Williams had 23 and Johnson 21. Hayes had 29p/14r and Dandridge 20p/9r. Basically the league’s best two guards had bested the league’s best two forwards. The Bullets, playing at home had gotten off to a promising 30-19 first quarter lead but they lost the remaining three quarters. Motta has tried his trick from the year before of moving Dandridge to the backcourt but it didn’t work this time. It put Kevin Grevey on the bench and Dandridge out of his normal range. Bob said “I can do whatever I want from the forward positon but out there, I’m hampered.” Downtown Freddie Brown hit 4 of 5 shots in the final period to nail it down for the Sonics. But it was Johnson, “who had played end-to-end the entire series, scoring, blocking shots, clogging the passing lanes, getting back on defense” who was named the Finals MVP.

Thus ended a frustrating decade for the NBA, with bursts of excellence early in the decade that could not be sustained and bursts of mediocrity winning titles in the later half of the decade. It had failed to capture the imagination of the public. But things were about to change in a big way.
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