The Washington Bullets had made two trips to the NBA Finals in the 1970s, in 1971 and 1975 respectively. But they hadn’t yet won a title–in fact, they hadn’t even won a game in the Finals, being swept out both times.
The 1978 Washington Bullets weren’t as good as their ’71 and ’75 predecessors during the regular season, but they were better when it counted most, winning the franchise’s first and only NBA crown.
Elvin Hayes was the foundation of a balanced and deep lineup. The 32-year-old power forward averaged 20 points/13 rebounds per game. He was ably supported on the boards by 31-year-old Wes Unseld, with his 12 rebounds a game. Mitch Kupchak brought some youth to the interior and the 23-year-old from North Carolina averaged 16/7.
The perimeter and wings were similarly well-balanced, with one core player and supporting pieces not far behind. Bob Dandridge was the core, and the 30-year-old small forward averaged 19 points/6 rebounds/4 assists. Kevin Grevey and Phil Chenier combined for 30 a night and point guard Tom Henderson chipped in 11 points while running the floor show.
Washington had to deal with a slow start and they were never really healthy during the regular season. The consequence was a mediocre 44-38 record. But it was good enough to get them into the playoffs and by the time April rolled around, the Bullets were getting healthy and starting to find their groove.
The structure of the NBA at this time had each conference split into two divisions, and there were six teams per conference in the postseason, with the two division winners getting byes. The other four, which included the Bullets as the 3-seed, had to play a best-of-three “mini-series.”
Washington played the Atlanta Hawks, who were a young team that came in at 41-41. The Hawks had a good young guard who combined for 52 points in the two games, but Bullet balance was too much. Dandridge led all scorers with 20 points in a 103-94 win to get the series load and then Grevey exploded for 31 in a 107-103 overtime win that got the Bullets out of the lightning round and into standard best-of-seven play.
The San Antonio Spurs were in the Eastern Conference then, and that’s not the only difference between the Spurs of 1978 and the Spurs we know in the 21st century. This San Antonio team was not built around depth, teamwork and ball movement, like in the Duncan/Popovich era. The Spurs of ’78 relied heavily on one great scorer who didn’t play much defense and was a ballhog.
George Gervin, known as “The Iceman”, led the NBA with his 27.2 ppg, but he didn’t exactly elevate the rest of the team. San Antonio won 50 games in the regular season, but with Washington now healthy, this was the ideal matchup for a well-balanced team.
It didn’t start out that way. Gervin had a torrid third quarter in the series opener, keying a 114-103 win. But the Bullets stole homecourt advantage in Game 2. Even with Gervin going for 46, Washington was up 17 after three quarters, thanks to 31 from Grevey and 28 from Hayes. San Antonio cut the lead to two down the stretch, but Kupchak scored two huge baskets in the final minute to secure the 121-117 win.
The Bullets came home and controlled Game 3. Dandridge and Hayes combined for 55 points, but the big story was reserve guard Charles Johnson stepping up for 22 points, as Washington led by nineteen after three quarters and won 118-105. It wouldn’t be the last time the unheralded Johnson would play a key role in a key moment in this postseason.
Game 4 was tight to the end. Gervin got his 30-plus for the fourth straight game, but the Bullets got their third win, 98-95. Dandridge and Hayes again carried the load, and Hayes got two big baskets and blocked a Gervin shot down the stretch to secure the 98-95 win. With a 3-1 series lead, the Bullets seemed to mail it in back in San Antonio, dumping Game 5 by a 116-105 count.
But in that loss, they had “held” Gervin to 27 points and the pattern of better defense on the Iceman followed Washington back home for Game 6. Gervin had “only” 23, and that wasn’t going to be enough. The game was tight, with Hayes leading the Bullets with 25 points. The difference-maker? Again, it was Charles Johnson who hit 20 points and ensured his team wouldn’t have to go on the road for Game 7, with a 103-101 win.
The Philadelphia 76ers were the defending Eastern Conference champs and the top seed in this year’s playoffs. They were hungry, after losing the 1977 NBA Finals in six games to the Portland Trailblazers after winning the first two. The Sixers were led by the great Julius Erving, “Dr. J”, and also had Doug Collins and World B. Free who could score in the backcourt, and a productive forward in George McGinnis.
Washington came into the old Philadelphia Spectrum and stole a thrilling Game 1 in overtime. Hayes was dominant, scoring 28 points, hauling in 18 rebounds and blocking six shots. He scored his final nine points in overtime, outscoring the entire Sixer team in the extra session of a 122-117 win. Even though Collins got loose in Game 2 and had a big night enabling Philly to tie the series, the Bullets were going back home with the series tied.
The series then followed the same pattern as the one with San Antonio. Washington jumped out to a big lead in Game 3, going up 17 at the half and turning in a great defensive effort on Erving, who scored just 12 points. Dandridge poured in 30 for the 123-108 win. In Game 4, it was the fourth quarter when the Bullets took over. Hayes went off for 35/19, while Dandridge had 27, each outscoring Dr. J in a 121-105 win.
And just like the previous round, Washington took a break in the road Game 5, falling behind early and losing 107-94. Then they came back home and wrapped it up in an exciting two-point win. Dandridge scored 28 and Hayes scored 21, and the defensive effort never really let Dr. J get unleashed. The 101-99 victory set the Bullets into the NBA Finals.
In today’s NBA, it’s usually the favorites that advance, but the West also saw a team come out of the mini-series round. The Seattle Sonics went 47-35 and had been the #4 seed. But the West–indeed the entire NBA–had opened up when frontrunner and defending champ Portland was devastated by the late-season foot injury of Bill Walton.
It derailed the Blazers in the short-term and in the long-term, as Walton never recovered from the foot problems. Seattle was able to beat Portland in the second round and then upset Denver, with its electric star David Thompson, in the conference finals.
Washington went on the road to the Seattle Coliseum and came out strong, grabbing an 11-point lead after the first quarter of Game 1. Grevey scored 27 points and the Bullets still led going into the fourth quarter. But Seattle’s explosive Fred Brown scored 16 points in the last nine minutes, leading the Sonics to a 106-102 win.
The Finals used a strange 1-2-2-1-1-1 format in 1978, the only year of the odd scheduling, so Washington came home. Dandridge went off for 34, Hayes had 25, Unseld had 15 rebounds and the Bullets tied the series with a 106-98 win. But they dropped Game 3 in spite of 29 from Hayes. Trailing 93-92, Dandridge got a look at the buzzer to win it, but the shot missed. Washington now trailed the series 2-1 and had three more games to play on the road.
A scheduling conflict required Game 4 to move to the Seattle Kingdome and when the Bullets trailed by 15 late in the third quarter, their odds of ever playing back in D.C. again were starting to look faint. They rallied, as Dandridge scored 23 points and hit a huge three down the stretch that helped force overtime.
Seattle had a great young guard in Dennis Johnson, who exploded for 33 points, but it was another Johnson that took over the OT period. Yup, Charles Johnson again came up big, scoring six points early in overtime and with the 120-116 win, Washington had kept themselves alive.
Even so, the Bullets still needed at least one win on the road and it didn’t happen in Game 5. They dug themselves a hole in the second quarter and poor free throw shooting hindered efforts to comeback. The final was 98-94, though the Sonics remained in control.
If nothing else, Washington had made it back home and after a mostly even first quarter, the Bullets simply took over Game 6. Hayes led all scorers with 21 and the 117-82 win was the biggest blowout in Finals history, a record that would stand for twenty years.
Winning a Game 7 on the road in the NBA as always difficult and the deeper you get into the playoffs, it seems to rise to the level of being almost impossible. In fact, doing it in the Finals hasn’t happened since this June 7, 1978 night in Seattle.
Washington played outstanding defense on Dennis Johnson, forcing him into an 0-for-14 night and they led by 13 points after three quarters. But Hayes was having a tough night and would foul out with just 12 points. Seattle came back and cut the lead to 101-99.
Unseld was coming through on the glass, as he did all series long, and now he had to come through on the foul line. Not a good free throw shooter by nature, Unseld hit consecutive foul shots with all the money on the table. The Bullets hung on 105-99.
Unseld was named NBA Finals MVP, although to be candid, this is the most ridiculous MVP vote in the history of the Finals. Unseld had a nice series to be sure, averaging 12 rebounds per game and he was always a good screener. These things are important to winning basketball games–heck, in playing pickup basketball, it’s basically what this writer does, so I don’t want to demean it. But this means I also know that rebounders and screeners are support pieces, not lead actors.
The lead actor in the Finals, as he had been all year, was clearly Hayes, with his 21 ppg and he actually slightly outrebounded Unseld. Let’s give Elvin his due.
But I suppose given what a complete team the 1978 Washington Bullets were, we shouldn’t make venting over the individual hardware the legacy. At a time in D.C. sports history when the Redskins had yet to win a Super Bowl, the Bullets title was the biggest win the city had experienced.