1979: SuperSonics versus Bullets (Seattle’s Sweet Redemption)

Background

After losing a tough seven game series in the 1978 NBA Finals, the SuperSonics returned the following season with the roster largely intact (aside from the departure of center Marvin Webster) and acquired Lonnie Shelton to start at power forward. In the regular season, Seattle won a conference-best 52 games and entered the playoffs with a bye. In the conference semifinals, the SuperSonics easily defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in five games. In the Western Conference Finals against the Phoenix Suns, Seattle won the first two games at home but lost three straight to fall into a 3-2 hole. Facing elimination, the SuperSonics won a close game six on the road then defeated Phoenix in a tight game seven to advance to a second straight NBA Finals.

Coming off their long awaited NBA championship in 1978, the Bullets returned in 1979 hoping to become the first team to repeat since the 1969 Boston Celtics. Washington swept through the regular season with 54 wins and earned the top seed overall in the playoffs. In the conference semifinals, facing an Atlanta Hawks team that had just beaten league MVP Moses Malone and the Houston Rockets, the Bullets easily took a 3-1 series lead, but lost two straight clinchers to set up a decisive game seven, which Washington won to advance to their second straight Eastern Conference Finals. Facing the San Antonio Spurs, the Bullets found themselves in a 3-1 hole but won three straight–thanks to a series-winner  from Bob Dandridge in the seventh–to reach the team’s second straight NBA Finals.

Lineups

Seattle’s back court remained identical to the previous season with Gus Williams starting at point guard along side All-Star Dennis Johnson at shooting guard. John Johnson started up front at small forward alongside newcomer Lonnie Shelton at power forward. First-time All-Star Jack Sikma slid over to center to replace the departed Webster.

The SuperSonics relied on a relatively short bench, with outside shooter Fred Brown serving as the primary backup at guard and two-time champion Paul Silas serving as the first forward in reserve. Players to see limited minutes in the NBA Finals include Dennis Awtrey, Wally Walker, and Joe Hassett.

The Bullets’ starting lineup remained the same from their championship series, with Tom Henderson at point guard in the back court alongside shooting guard Kevin Grevey. Bob Dandridge started up front at small forward with power forward Elvin Hayes and reigning Finals MVP Wes Unseld at center.

Off the bench, Washington utilized Larry Wright as the backup point guard and Charles Johnson as the reserve shooting guard. Greg Ballard, provided depth in the front court at small forward. Players who saw few minutes in the championship series include former All-Star Phil Chenier and Dave Corzine.

Game One: SuperSonics 97, Bullets 99

The Bullets led from wire-to-wire in game one, but Gus Williams led a furious comeback for the Sonics in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 straight for his team at one point. With a game-high 32 points, Williams hit a jumper to bring Seattle within three with a minute to play, but Washington held on down the stretch to win the opener. Dandridge, Grevey, and Hayes combined for 56 points, and Wright erupted for 26 points off the bench to lead the Bullets. Dennis Johnson chipped in 23 points, but the Sonics now trailed the series 1-0.

Game Two: SuperSonics 92, Bullets 82

Desperate to avoid a 2-0 series deficit, the Sonics grabbed an early lead after the first quarter despite Hayes’ 11 points in the period. The Bullets came back in the second quarter to reclaim the lead but were stymied in the second half by Seattle’s defense, scoring only 30 points in the final 24 minutes. Williams again led all scorers with 23 points to go along with Dennis Johnson’s 20 and John Johnson’s 17. Dandridge led Washington with 21, but Hayes only scored nine over the final three quarters as the Sonics evened the series at 1-1.

Game Three: Bullets 95, SuperSonics 105

Comfortably back home, the Sonics dominated throughout game three, establishing a double-digit lead by halftime and increasing their advantage to 15 points before the final period. Williams was led all scorers for the third straight game with 31 points, Sikma scored 21 before fouling out, and Dennis Johnson had an excellent all-around game with 17 points, 9 rebounds, and two blocked shots. Dandridge led the Bullets with 28 points alongside Hayes and Unseld’s combined 42, but the Sonics coasted to a 2-1 series lead.

Game Four: Bullets 112, SuperSonics 114 (OT)

The Bullets led at the half, but the Sonics reclaimed a three-point lead entering the final quarter. Washington came back to tie the game before the end of the period, forcing overtime. Holding a close two-point lead in the final seconds, Dennis Johnson partially blocked Grevey’s game-tying attempt, and Seattle hung on to take a commanding 3-1 series lead behind Johnson and Williams’ combined 68 points and Sikma’s 20. The Bullets fell despite a balanced scoring effort as five players scored 16 or more.

Game Five: SuperSonics 97, Bullets 93

The Sonics trailed throughout the first three quarters before Fred Brown banked in a jumper to put them ahead for good early in the fourth. Clutch baskets by Seattle’s kept the Bullets at bay as the repeatedly came up short trying to come back. Williams finished with 23 points, and Jack Sikma played outstanding by out-rebounding Unseld 17 to 3. For Washington, Hayes led all scorers with 29, but Dandridge fouled out as the Sonics clinched their first NBA championship. With 21 points in the clincher, Dennis Johnson was named Finals MVP for his consistently superb play.

Aftermath

Seattle returned the following season to defend their title but fell in a five-game Western Conference Finals to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers, preventing a third straight NBA Finals appearance. With an entirely new roster in 1987, the Sonics would reach the conference finals, only to lose to the Lakers again, and Seattle wouldn’t reappear in the NBA Finals in 1996.

Injuries and age caught up to the Bullets in 1980 as they barely made the playoffs, and Unseld retired at year’s end. Elvin Hayes was traded to the Houston Rockets, and after perennial playoff struggles, the team was renamed the Wizards in 1997. Washington wouldn’t advance in the post-season in consecutive years, however, until the 2014 and 2015 seasons, both times losing in the conference semifinals.

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