The 1979 NBA playoffs did not have a marquee Finals matchup or a thrilling finish—the Seattle Sonics and Washington Bullets, who played in the 1978 NBA Finals, rematched for the title, with the Sonics winning in five games—but the playoffs in their entirety were as exciting as you could ask. Both conference finals went seven games, as did both Eastern Conference semi-finals and 3-1 series leads proved paper-thin.
Washington won a league-best 54 games and was out for a second straight title. Elvin Hayes and Bob Dandridge were 20-point scorers and tough rebounders, as was Wes Unseld. The then-named Bullets faced the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks had eliminated the Houston Rockets and their MVP center Moses Malone in the best-of-three “mini-series” that was the precursor to the conference semis. Hayes scored 31 points, while Dandridge scored 30 and Washington won the opener 103-89. Even when Atlanta won Game 2, Washington went south and got two road wins, with Dandridge scoring 31 points and hitting key shots at the end for an overtime win in Game 4.
But Atlanta turned the tide, winning a close game in D.C. and a blowout back home for Game 6, and suddenly it was down to one game. Hayes scored 39 points and Dandridge had 29, as Washington hung on 100-94.
The San Antonio Spurs, still in the Eastern Conference, were the #2 seed and they faced the Philadelphia 76ers. It was a battle of scorers, the Spurs’ George Gervin and the 76ers’ Julius “Dr. J” Erving. The Sixers had lost the 1977 NBA Finals and the 1978 Eastern Conference Finals in tough fashion. This series didn’t start well for them. San Antonio won the first two games at home, with Gervin’s sidekick Larry Keno coming up big.
Erving scored 39 points in a Game 3 win back in Philly, but he was held to 15 in Game 4 while Gervin had 32 and the Spurs’ 115-112 win in Game 4 seemed to give them a firm hold on the series. But Philadelphia responded with a 120-97 blowout that illustrated questions about San Antonio’s battle-readiness on their home floor.
A two-point Sixer win in Game 6 pushed the series to the brink. In the finale, Gervin and Dr. J. were both brilliant, going for 30-plus, but Kenon was the third-best player on the floor and that gave San Antonio the edge in a 111-108 win.
Seattle had won 52 games, was the top seed in the West and out for redemption over last year’s home loss in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Their opponent in the West finals was the Phoenix Suns, who’d pulled a mammoth upset in this round over the Golden State Warriors just three years earlier.
The Sonics had a troika of guards Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams, along with center Jack Sikma. The Suns countered with the explosive Paul Westphal and Walter Davis. The Sonics won the first two games, taking Game 2 in spite of bad showings from all three key players.
But Phoenix not only defended their home court in Games 3 & 4, they went to Seattle and stole Game 5 on the strength of 27 points from Westphal. And they led Game 6 by eight points after three quarters. Seattle rallied and won that one 106-105. Then their troika delivered in Game 7. Sikma had a 33/11, Williams and Johnson were combined for 55 points and Seattle survived 114-110.
Washington wasn’t ready in Game 1 against San Antonio, losing 118-97, though Unseld’s 26/22 showing in Game 2 evened the series. San Antonio won both middle games at home, with Gervin’s 42-point showing in Game 4 pushing them to a 3-1 series lead. Hayes took over the next two games, with a 24/22 in Game 5, then 25 points in Game 6 to force a one-game battle back in D.C. Gervin again responded to a big game, with 42 points. But it wasn’t enough. Dandridge scored 37 and hit a jumper with eight seconds left to win the game 107-105.
After four Game 7s, maybe it was inevitable that the last round of the 1979 NBA playoffs would be a letdown. Washington got out to an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 1, but they nearly blew it, and though they survived 99-97, the rest of the series was all Seattle. Williams averaged 29 ppg for the Finals. Johnson’s lockdown defense won him NBA Finals MVP. An overtime win for Seattle in Game 4 ended all doubt, and a 97-93 win on the road in Game 5 gave the Sonics their redemption.