The star players got knocked out in the playoffs and the road team won Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The Washington Bullets’ championship win over the Seattle Sonics was the culmination of a strange run in the 1978 NBA season.
Portland had been head and shoulders above the league after their 1977 title. But late in the year Bill Walton, en route to the MVP award, broke his foot. The Los Angeles Lakers made the playoffs, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a bit off his MVP form of the previous two seasons, and he wasn’t getting any help.
The door was open for other contenders in the West. Seattle eliminated Los Angeles in the first round, with a balanced attack of guards Gus Williams, Fred Brown and Dennis Johnson, mixing with strong inside play from Marvin Webster and rookie Jack Sikma.
Walton tried to come back against Seattle in the conference semis, but only lasted two games. Sikma took over the interior, particularly in the crucial Game 4 and keyed a 100-98 win that gave the Sonics a 3-1 series edge. They finished the Blazers in six.
Julius Erving (“Dr. J”) of the Philadelphia 76ers and the Denver Nuggets’ David Thompson were still two of the league’s most electrifying players and the favorites in the conference finals against Washington and Seattle respectively. The Sixers had the best record in the East and the Nuggets were the second-best in the West.
Washington, meanwhile had trudged to a 44-38 record and had three thirtysomethings on the frontcourt in Elvin Hayes, Bob Dandridge and Wes Unseld. But Hayes was a scoring and rebounding tour de force. He dominated Games 1 & 4 to key Washington wins, and the Bullets also won Game 3 at home when they held Dr. J to 12 points. The Bullet defense never let Erving take over, as Dr. J would not have a 30-point game in this series. Washington won Game 6 to clinch the East.
Denver got strong play from Thompson and fellow scoring forward Dan Issel, but Seattle’s balance—they had seven players average between 10-20 ppg during the season, helped them get a road win. Seattle’s defense then shut down Issel in Game 3. And Johnson, just 23-years-old and starting his Hall of Fame career, scored 31 in Game 4 while keeping Thompson reasonably in check, and the Sonics moved to a 3-1 series lead. They blew open Game 6 in the third quarter and won the West.
A Sonics-Bullets Finals had no stars that were recognizable—Unseld was a former league MVP, but he was yesterday’s news. Johnson wasn’t a known commodity. But the basketball would be entertaining.
Seattle rallied from 11 down in the fourth quarter of Game 1 to win at home. In an odd schedule format, Washington then hosted the next two games. A 34-point night from Dandridge evened things up, then the Sonics won a 93-92 thriller. The next two games in Seattle were equally thrilling. Washington won Game 4 in overtime, and while Johnson poured in 33 points, he also missed some key minutes after catching an elbow, allowing the Bullets to rally. Seattle regrouped and won Game 5.
Washington blew open Game 6 in the second quarter to send the series back to the Pacific Northwest. They led the finale by thirteen points after three quarters, Johnson had a miserable 0-for-14 shooting night and Washington held on, 105-99. Unseld got Finals MVP, primarily due to his interior defense, and Washington remains the last team to win road Game 7 in the NBA Finals.