1979 NBA Finals: Seattle 4, Washington 1
DJ Leads the Way for Sonics
When he was a young pro, Dennis Johnson was considered a leaper, an athletic defensive guard who could block shots and rebound. That view of him changed after more than a decade in the league. In his later years with the Boston Celtics he would amble upcourt with a stiff gait, seemingly locked in a perpetual state of chafe. He came to be viewed as a crafty vet who survived on pride, guile and experience.
As a younger player Johnson had played defense as if every point an opponent scored was a personal affront to his humanity. He was driven by a territorial urge, challenging for every inch of playing space and finding great pleasure in getting in an opponent's face.
It was the great misfortune of the Washington Bullets that they faced the younger version of Dennis Johnson in the 1979 NBA Finals.
In 1978 both the Bullets and Sonics had been surprise teams in the NBA Finals. But that had all changed by 1979. Now they were expected to win.
"Don't be fooling yourself," Seattle's Fred Brown said when asked for his predictions for the playoffs. "You know it all boils down to us against Washington one more time. Both teams have great people all the way through the lineup. They're deeper, but we make up for that with our backcourt. I think it will be wild and picturesque all over again."
There was some excitement generated over the idea that Washington had a clear shot at being the first NBA team to repeat as champions since the Celtics had last done it in 1969. After all, the Bullets clearly had the best and deepest frontcourt in basketball, with Elvin Hayes and Bob Dandridge at forwards, Wes Unseld and Mitch Kupchak at center, and Greg Ballard off the bench. Their backcourt, too, had become deeper, with Phil Chenier returning from injury.
However, in the midst of their strength and success, they faced the same old problems of team discord. Dandridge made it known that he was upset that Hayes made $200,000 more per year than he did, and the discontent threw a wrench into coach Dick Motta's works. Even so, Washington charged to a league-best 54-28 record for the regular season, and by playoff time most observers figured the Bullets were ready to roll.
The Sonics had also maintained their prestige, but not without a struggle. They finished at 52-30, best in the Western Conference, and they did it despite substantial turnover in the frontcourt. First, center Marvin Webster, the "Human Eraser," went off to New York as a free agent. Then his replacement, Tommy LaGarde, got injured. So Lenny Wilkens moved Jack Sikma from forward to the post and brought in Lonnie Shelton, who had come from New York, at forward.
The Sonics still had John Johnson and Paul Silas, the infamous "Papa Bear" of the previous season. Now 35 years old, he was more respected than ever, which was exactly what the young Sonics needed.
"Look anywhere on our team, and you'll see Paul's influence," explained Wilkens, who had played with Silas in St. Louis and had encouraged him to join Seattle.
"The Sonics will win because they believe they will win," declared Rick Barry, who was now playing with Houston and broadcasting for CBS on the side. Wilkens agreed. "The difference from last year is maturity," he said. "Last year we were so young, we played on emotion. There were questions. Now we run strictly on confidence."
The Bullets, meanwhile, found the going a bit rougher. In the Eastern Conference Semifinals they met the Atlanta Hawks, coached by Hubie Brown. The Bullets gained the edge on the Hawks, three games to one, then fell asleep at the wheel, only to awaken and find themselves in a seven-game tussle for control. They survived at home by six points but were no sooner out of that mess than they found themselves in another.
The San Antonio Spurs, coached by Doug Moe and led by George Gervin, also pushed them to seven games. They jumped out to a two-game lead on the Bullets in the Eastern Conference Finals. Washington finally resolved that one with a come-from-behind two-point win at home on Friday night, May 18.
About 36 hours after they finished off the Spurs, the Bullets found themselves entertaining the Sonics in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. No problem, the Bullets told themselves, and promptly secured a 99-97 win. They led by 18 points in the third quarter but attempted to get some much needed rest before the fat lady got around to singing. Given a chance, the Sonics jumped back in the game. The score was tied in the last seconds of regulation when DJ attempted to block Larry Wright's jumper. Whistles sounded, and Wright was awarded two free throws with no time on the clock.
He made both, but the Bullets had used up their quotient of luck and wins. It was about to become Dennis Johnson's series. Wilkens just knew it. "You know when I thought we had them?" he would say later. "When we came back from 18 points down in the third quarter in Game 1 in Washington. I never really worried after that."
The Sonics promptly shut down Dandridge and Hayes in the second half of Game 2 and seized the home-court advantage with a 92-82 win. Game 3 was held in the Kingdome, where 35,928 fans deafened the Bullets. The Sonics opened by double-teaming the ball and limited Washington to 30-percent field-goal shooting for the first quarter. At the other end, Seattle was red hot and opened a 13-point lead.
Things got even worse for the Bullets in the second period, when they shot only 20 percent from the field. Seattle coasted to a 105-95 win and the series lead as Gus Williams had 31 points. DJ had 17 points with nine rebounds and two blocks. Inside, Sikma scored 21 points and added 17 rebounds to the total.
With Washington's guards struggling, Motta had again tried moving Dandridge to the backcourt, just as he had during the 1978 Finals. But this time the move only left his players complaining. Kevin Grevey wanted plays run to get the guards open. Dandridge just wanted to get back to the frontcourt. "I can do whatever I want from the forward position," he said. "But out there I'm hampered."
Even in this state of disarray, the Bullets almost turned it around in Game 4. It was a night of whistles; in all, 59 fouls were called. The game went into overtime, and Washington eventually lost Hayes, Dandridge and Unseld. Sikma sat down, too, after hitting the clutch free throws that sealed the Sonics' win.
In the fourth quarter, the Bullets were down by seven points when Charles Johnson finally found his range. Then Unseld, who finished with 16 points and 16 rebounds, hit a final layup to send the game into overtime at 104-104. But the extra period belonged to the Sonics, specifically their guards. Williams finished with 36 points and DJ 32, while Sikma scored 20 with 17 rebounds and five blocks.
Grevey had one last chance to send it into a second overtime with three seconds left, but DJ notched his fourth block of the night and it ended 114-112, Seattle. "I think the knockout punch was delivered tonight," Brown said afterward.
But the Bullets didn't seem to be reeling as Game 5 opened in Washington. Hayes scored a quick 20 points, and the Sonics trailed by eight at the half. Washington maintained that lead through most of the third quarter, but as the period drew to a close the Sonics took off on a 12-0 run that put them up 72-69. Brown took over down the stretch, hitting 4 of 5 shots in the final 13 minutes, and Seattle clinched its first title, 97-93.
Dennis Johnson, who had played end-to-end the entire series -- scoring, blocking shots, clogging the passing lanes, getting back on defense -- was named the Finals MVP. He reacted by saying that he was just a "funny-looking black kid with red hair and freckles," that he was just doing what needed to be done. His teammates had worked just as hard as he had, Johnson said, and they looked just as funny.
Then he and running mate Gus Williams -- the two of them had scored more than half of Seattle's points in the series -- celebrated in the best Auerbachian tradition: They lit cigars and puffed proudly.
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