1978: Bullets versus SuperSonics (Wes Wins his Ring)

Background

Despite reaching the NBA Finals in 1971 and 1975, the Bullets failed to win a single game in the championship series as they were swept both times. Midway through the 1977 season, Washington traded for Tom Henderson to replace aging point guard Dave Bing. After signing All-Star Bob Dandridge before the 1977-78 season, the Bullets won 44 games  behind second-year head coach Dick Motta. As the three seed in the playoffs and cast as an underdog in each match-up, Washington beat the Atlanta Hawks in a two-game first round, then outlasted the San Antonio Spurs in six games despite dropping the opener on the road. Facing the reigning Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia 76ers in the conference finals, the Bullets won the first game in overtime despite a game-tying buzzer beater from Doug Collins, and proceeded to win all three home games as they finished Philadelphia in six to advance to the franchise’s third NBA Finals

Entering the league in 1967, the SuperSonics failed to reach the playoffs until 1975, when they advanced to the second round but lost to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors. After disappointing 1976 and 1977 campaigns and a poor start to the 1978 season, Seattle brought back Lenny Wilkens as head coach. Recovering from a 5-17 start, the SuperSonics finished with 47 wins and entered the playoffs as the four seed. Led by rookie Jack Sikma and a star-studded back court, Seattle defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in three games in the first round. In the conference semifinals, the SuperSonics stole the opener against the defending champion Portland Trailblazers. League MVP Bill Walton was lost for the season in game two, and Seattle advanced in six games. Facing the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, the SuperSonics dropped the opener but won four of the next five to advance to their first NBA Finals.

Lineups

In the back court, Washington utilized Tom Henderson at point guard alongside Kevin Grevey at shooting guard. Newcomer Bob Dandridge arrived to start at small forward in the front court with future Hall-of-Famers Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld at power forward and center respectively.

Off the bench, the Bullets employed Larry Wright as the backup point guard and Charles Johnson as the reserve shooting guard. Greg Ballard provided depth in the front court at forward, and Mitch Kupchak served as the third big man off the bench. Joe Pace and Phil Walker played few minutes in the series.

The SuperSonics starting back court was comprised of speedy point guard Gus Williams and up-and-coming shooting guard Dennis Johnson. In the front court, John Johnson, started at small forward alongside rookie Jack Sikma at power forward and shot-blocker Marvin Webster at center.

The Seattle bench was very short, as “Downtown” Fred Brown, served as the primary backup on the perimeter, and two-time champion Paul Silas provided depth at forward. Players to see few minutes in the NBA Finals include Wally Walker, Bruce Seals, Joe Hassett, and Al Fleming.

Game One: Bullets 102, SuperSonics 106

The Bullets held an 11-point lead entering the fourth quarter, but Fred Brown led a furious comeback with 16 points in the final nine minutes as the Sonics stole the victory after trailing the entire night. Brown finished with 30 points to lead all scorers alongside Webster and John Johnson’s combined 35. Grevey and Hayes scored 27 and 21 respectively for Washington, but the team choked away a guaranteed game one win in the final period.

Game Two: SuperSonics 98, Bullets 106

Washington established an early 13-point lead after the first quarter and withstood a 36-point second quarter from Seattle to win their first NBA Finals game. Unseld was terrific inside with 15 rebounds and five assists to accompany excellent post defense on Sikma and Webster. Dandridge erupted with 34 points to lead all scorers along with Hayes and Henderson’s combined 45. Williams and Dennis Johnson combined for 45 points, but the series was now tied at one game apiece.

Game Three: SuperSonics 93, Bullets 92

In a close game three, the Sonics held a three-point lead with 10 seconds left in the fourth when Henderson stole the ball and scored to bring the Bullets within one. Silas turned the ball over when he stepped on the inbound line, but Dandridge missed the game-winner as time expired. Dennis Johnson played outstanding defense with seven blocks and holding Grevey to 1/14 shooting, and Williams and Webster both scored 20 points to lead Seattle. Hayes and Dandridge combined for 50 points for Washington, but they trailed in the series again 2-1.

Game Four: Bullets 120, SuperSonics 116 (OT)

Looking to seize a commanding 3-1 series lead, the Sonics held a 15-point advantage late in the third quarter when the Bullets stormed back behind Charles Johnson to take a two-point lead with three minutes left. Dennis Johnson scored three straight to retake the lead, but Dandridge answered back with three of his own. Fred Brown hit a jumper to send it to overtime, where Charles came alive again with three quick baskets as Washington won a nail-biter to tie series at 2-2. Dandridge scored 23 points to lead the Bullets, and Hayes fouled out despite scoring 20 of his own. Dennis had a game-high 33 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 blocks for Seattle, but the Sonics let a crucial victory slip away down the stretch.

Game Five: Bullets 94, SuperSonics 98

The Sonics again led entering the fourth quarter, only to see the Bullets comeback once again. Free throw shooting turned out to be Washington’s weakness, however, as they only made 9/20 from the line in the second half. Seattle held on with a combined 50 points from Brown and Dennis Johnson, pushing the Bullets to the brink with a 3-2 series lead. Grevey fouled out despite 22 points to lead Washington as they headed home facing elimination.

Game Six: SuperSonics 82, Bullets 117

As a risky move, coach Dick Motta inserted Greg Ballard at forward and moved Dandridge to guard. It paid off as the duo helped Washington build a 12-point lead at the half despite trailing after the first quarter. The Bullets scored 70 points in the second half and blew out the Sonics with a 35-point victory that was the largest margin at the time. Hayes, Dandridge, and Kupchak combined for 59 points as Washington forced a deciding game seven. Seattle struggled offensively in game six as Brown led the team with only 17.

Game Seven: Bullets 105, SuperSonics 99

On the road, The Bullets steadily built a 13-point lead over the first three quarters, and Dennis Johnson struggled from the field on 0/14 shooting. The Sonics staged a comeback late in the fourth quarter, but Washington made their foul shots down the stretch and sealed their victory on a dunk from Dandridge. Balanced scoring saw six players score in double figures for the Bullets, and they shocked Seattle despite a combined 69 points from Webster, Brown, and Sikma. Washington became only the second team to win an NBA Finals game seven on the road, and Wes Unseld was named Finals MVP for his all-around team play.

Aftermath

With their first victory in three tries, the Bullets had finally captured their coveted NBA championship in 1978. The following season, Washington embarked to repeat as champions and won 54 games in the regular season. As the top seed in the playoffs, the Bullets and outlasted seven-game series from the Atlanta Hawks and San Antonio Spurs to reach their second straight NBA Finals.

The Sonics were devastated after losing the 1978 NBA Finals despite leading 3-2 entering game six. In 1979, the team acquired power forward Lonnie Shelton and set to work redeeming themselves. With 52 regular season wins, Seattle advanced in the playoffs after a five-game series with the Los Angeles Lakers and reached their second straight NBA Finals after a tough seven-game series against the Phoenix Suns.

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