The 1979 NBA Champion Seattle Supersonics put to good use their hard-earned playoff lessons from the year before
They had to get back. Just had to. There were bad memories to be erased. Learned lessons to be applied. Mighty foes to be conquered. Seattle’s run to the 1979 NBA Finals was about all those things. It was also about a team’s ability to grow from one season to the next. About how a team could work past the disappointment of loss and mature into a champion.
It was right that Washington would be there, too. The Bullets had established the Sonics’ learning curve one year earlier, prevailing in a grueling Finals series by taking the seventh game in Seattle.
Washington’s veteran team showed the character needed to win it all by staving off elimination in Game 6 and then grabbing the trophy on the road. That’s how it was done, how winners conducted business.
One year later, here they were again. Washington and Seattle, the two teams with the NBA’s best records. Two familiar foes.
“The experience of the year before helped us, not necessarily in the Finals, but in our playoff run,” says Jack Sikma, forward on that Seattle team and now a Sonics assistant coach. “We had a lot of tough series in ’79; none of them were 4-0. We played a lot of playoff basketball those two years, and it was a relief to get back to the Finals, because it gave us another chance.
“We had lost the seventh game at home (in ’78), and that was an opportunity lost.”
The Sonics almost didn’t get their second chance. After blowing a 2-0 lead to freewheeling Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals, Seattle needed to win two straight just to secure a rematch with Washington. In the decisive Game 7, Sikma – who had struggled during the first five contests – went for 33 points and 11 rebounds in a 114-110 Sonics win. Washington, meanwhile, had problems of its own against San Antonio (yes, the Spurs were once in the East) and needed to rally from a 3-1 series deficit to win the finale in Landover.
The Bullets team that advanced to the Finals was almost identical to its championship predecessor. Forwards Elvin Hayes and Bob Dandridge orbited hulking pivot Wes Unseld, with Tom Henderson and Charles Johnson handling the starting backcourt chores. The bench was deep. Wingman Kevin Grevey was a midrange marvel, while Mitch Kupchak and Greg Ballard brought extra power up front.
Seattle, meanwhile, had made one substantive change in its roster from ’78 to ’79. Gone was mammoth center Marvin “The Human Eraser” Webster. In his place was third-year forward Lonnie Shelton, acquired during the offseason from the Knicks. Shelton was more mobile than Webster, and his arrival gave Sikma more room to operate inside and keyed his development into a big-time force. Shelton also had the strength and quickness to lean on and tire Hayes.
“Lonnie was the glue that tied it all together,” says “Downtown” Fred Brown, a long-range specialist and fan favorite. “He was able to neutralize Elvin Hayes. (Veteran forward Paul) Silas would wear him down with his strength, and then Lonnie would use his quickness.”
Shelton and Sikma were quite a tandem inside, and Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams were among the game’s best backcourts. All forward John Johnson did was everything. “He was our quarterback,” Brown says. “We ran a lot of our offense through him, and he was one of the finest passers who ever played the game.” Silas, meanwhile, was a superior rebounder and lockdown interior defender.
Seattle was confident but quickly fell into a 1-0 hole in a controversial manner. Wright was awarded two free throws with no time remaining in regulation on a disputed foul by Dennis Johnson. “We were certainly disgusted by that call,” Sikma says. The final verdict was a 99-97 Washington win in Landover. But Seattle took the second game 92-82, behind a swarming, trapping defense that limited the Bullets to just 30 second-half points. Seattle had accomplished its mission – a split on the road. “We felt we were in control at that point,” says Brown. “All we had to do then was execute.”
That had been a Sonic strength all year. Coach Lenny Wikens had crafted a strategy that had produced the League’s top defensive team and a precision offense that still gave players freedom to look for their shots. Against Washington, the Sonics moved Sikma away from the basket, the better to keep Unseld off the boards. That created opportunities for Williams and Dennis Johnson to zip to the hoop for layups.
When Sikma was in the post, he often worked with Brown, who was camped on the perimeter. The result was either a one-on-one matchup for Sikma and his turnaround jumper, or an open long ball for Brown. “Freddy was a great piece for me,” Sikma says. “We ran a lot of two-man games.”
The Sonics were going home, but to which home? Instead of playing in the Coliseum, which had been their home since joining the league, Seattle was scheduled to play Game 3 at the cavernous Kingdome, which had been a part-time home in’78-79. It wasn’t a popular spot for the players.
“The Kingdome took the home-court advantage away from us,” Brown says. “It was like a neutral court. The big attendance was phenomenal for the league and the team’s purse, but it didn’t help us. The atmosphere was foreign.”
The 35,928 fans who packed the place had some effect, because the Sonics held control of the game from the start with defense and rolled to a 105-95 win. The Seattle backcourt was particularly effective, outscoring its rival contingent, 64-17. Leading the charge was Williams, with a game-high 31. The speedy USC product topped 30 points in three of the series’ five games and averaged 26.6 ppg throughout the postseason, more than seven over his season total.
“Gus was probably the fastest guy in the open court I have ever seen,” says Brown. “Tiny Archibald, in his prime, was neck-and-neck with Gus. But Gus made it happen. His quickness, speed and jumping ability overwhelmed people. We designed things to let him go. (Opposing) big guys got tired of seeing that.”
“The Wizard” was even better in Game 4. Back in the intimate Coliseum, he scored a game-high 36 in a taut, 114-112 overtime win. Unseld’s follow-up with 18 seconds left in regulation forced the extra period. But Washington had to play the next five minutes without Hayes, who had fouled out. Early in overtime, Unseld was disqualified, too. The final Bullet to hit six fouls was Dandridge, so by game’s end, the entire Washington forward wall was watching from the bench.
What they saw couldn’t have cheered them. Sikma hit a pair of free throws with 0:39 to play, giving Seattle a four-point margin. Phil Chenier hit a jumper to bring Washington within two, and after Sikma missed an outside shot, the Bullets had a chance to tie. But Dennis Johnson got a piece of Kevin Grevey’s jumper from the right side with 0:04 left, and Sikma grabbed the rebound as time expired. The Sonics led the series, 3-1, and Washington looked finished.
“Lonnie was our music guy in the locker room, and after that game, he was playing ‘Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now’ on the boom box,” Brown says. “That was pretty much our anthem. We knew we had confidence, could execute and cared about each other.”
Much of that was due to Wilkens, a consummate player’s coach but also a shrewd tactical leader. “Lenny was a great fit for that team,” Sikma says. “He preached a bend-but-don’t-break defense, and he allowed us to work one-and-one, as well as get out on the break.”
The Sonics’ championship wasn’t a cinch after the Game 4 win, so the team – albeit confident – headed to Washington focused and ready to clinch it on the road. Although the Bullets came out determined and rolled to a 51-43 advantage, Seattle’s defense squeezed Washington after intermission.
Meanwhile, Williams and Dennis Johnson went to work, scoring 30 of their combined 44 points in the final two quarters. When Williams hit a pair of freebies with 0:12 left, Seattle had a four-point edge, 97-93. That’s how it ended. The Sonics were champs, and D.J. was MVP, thanks to his timely scoring and tremendous defense. “He did a little bit of everything for us,” Sikma says. “On defense, he played the toughest perimeter scorer on every team.”
There could have been several MVP winners. Williams averaged 29 points for the series. Sikma had 17 rebounds in each of the last three Finals games. It was a typical Seattle effort. Everybody contributed.
“There was a great sense of accomplishment, because the team was well-connected,” Sikma says. “We shared that triumph.”
And forgot about the past.
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