There was only one thing on the mind of the Seattle SuperSonics as they prepared for the 1979 NBA Finals: payback. A year earlier, the Sonics had gotten to the Finals and taken a 3-2 series lead before the Washington Bullets came back to take the series, winning Game 7 on the Sonics home floor. Again facing the Bullets, the Sonics wanted to even the score, and believed they could do so.
"I knew that we’d have the same guys back next year that, if we all committed to it, that if we got in that same situation again we’d be a much better team," recalled Lenny Wilkens, then the Sonics Coach, more than two decades later.
"We knew when we lost that first championship that we were going to win in the next year," remembered forward Paul Silas.
Still, the Bullets presented a formidable opponent. Not only had they won the year before, their 54 regular-season wins were the most in the NBA. The Bullets had the opportunity to become the first time in a decade to repeat as NBA Champions. The matchup was again a classic one, pitting Washington's outstanding front line of Bob Dandridge, Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld against the Sonics and their potent backcourt featuring Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson and Fred Brown.
Thanks to Washington's regular-season record advantage, the series opened in Landover, Maryland. The Sonics trailed 91-73 early in the fourth quarter of Game 1, and Washington appeared to be on the way to an easy victory before the Sonics rallied to make things interesting.
The game was tied at 97 inside the final meeting when Bullets guard Tom Henderson missed a jumper. Sonics forward Lonnie Shelton came down with the rebound, but as he looked upcourt for the go-ahead score, the ball was stripped off of him and out of bounds, giving Washington the ball. A pair of Sonics, center Jack Sikma and forward John Johnson, protested that they had called time out, but to no avail. Washington would get the ball back with five seconds to play.
The Sonics got a break when the Bullets were forced to inbound the ball to reserve Larry Wright. Wright threw up a 25-footer which was partially blocked by Williams and went out of bounds and back to the Bullets, this time with two seconds remaining. That was still enough for the Bullets to get the ball back to Wright charging towards the basket. Dennis Johnson went up with Wright to contest the basket, and the contact was sufficient in the eyes of referees to warrant a foul. Shooting with no time on the clock, Wright made two free throws to give Washington a 99-97 win.
Losing Game 1 only strengthened the Sonics resolve, and they responded with an outstanding defensive performance. Trailing by three points at halftime, the Sonics clamped down in the second half, allowing Washington just 30 points in a 92-82 victory. The Bullets shot 42.1% from the field, and their 82 points were the second-fewest ever allowed by the Sonics in a playoff game. John Johnson had a big game to spark the Sonics, scoring 17 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and handing out six assists to complement the 41 points supplied by the backcourt (as compared to 14 from Washington's guards).
The Sonics returned home looking to maintain home-court advantage. That wasn't a problem in Game 3, as the Sonics cruised to a 105-95 victory that was in reality more lopsided. With nearly 36,000 fans packing the Kingdome, the Sonics took a lead as large as 17 and were never seriously threatened. Williams again led the way with 31 points, but the big game came from Dennis Johnson, who fell an assist and a rebound shy of a triple-double, settling for 17 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. Sikma had 21 points and 17 boards. On the other side, Washington got 70 points from Dandridge, Hayes and Unseld, but just 25 from the rest of the team. The Bullets shot 25% in the first half, just 33% for the game.
Game 4 would go down as a classic, an overtime thriller full of drama. The Sonics held a modest seven-point lead in the fourth quarter, but Washington rallied to tie the game at 104 and force overtime on a late Unseld layup. Williams dominated the extra session, while the Bullets were plagued by foul trouble, with Dandridge, Hayes and Unseld all fouling out. Sikma's free throws gave the Sonics a four-point lead with 39 seconds. After a score, trailing by two, Washington had a chance to force double-overtime, but Johnson partially blocked Kevin Grevey's shot attempt to save the 114-112 win.
Again, the Sonics backcourt shined, combining for 68 points and connecting on 25 of its 48 shots. Johnson added 10 rebounds and four blocks. Sikma had 20 points, 17 rebounds and four blocks in 51 minutes of action (out of a possible 53).
The series returned to the East Coast with the Sonics holding a 3-1 lead and the Bullets bringing back their motto (coined, coincidentally, by Coach Dick Motta), "It ain't over 'till the fat lady sings". The fat lady seemed to have gone home when Washington took an 11-point lead after one quarter, taking advantage of poor Sonics shooting, but the visitors stayed in the game and used a 12-0 run spanning the third and fourth quarters to take the lead. Washington would threaten, but the Sonics continued to hold the lead.
The score was 95-93 Sonics with 15 seconds to play when Dennis Johnson missed a jumper. The rebound came down to John Johnson (who called it "the biggest rebound of my life"), forcing the Bullets to foul Williams, who hit two free throws to ice it. Williams ended up with the ball at the end of the 97-93 series clincher, throwing it high in the air as the Sonics gathered together for a team hug to celebrate winning their first NBA Championship.
Motta had attempted to pressure Dennis Johnson, who had shot 0-for-14 in Game 7 of the 1978 Finals, during the midst of the series. "As you get closer and closer, these games get bigger and bigger," Motta said. "Let's put it on Dennis Johnson. Let's just see." Johnson saw alright, winning Finals MVP for his performance. For the series, Johnson averaged 22.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 2.2 blocks and 1.8 steals per game. Williams led the Sonics in scoring, averaging 28.6 points per game. Together, he and Johnson scored more than half the Sonics points.
Everywhere, there were heroes. Sikma, in just his second NBA season, had hung with the Bullets frontline, averaging 16.2 points, 14.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks. John Johnson averaged 7.0 assists and had a 3.5 assist/turnover ratio. Defensively, the Sonics clamped down, holding Washington to 96.2 points per game (an incredible 18.7 below their regular-season average) and 41.2% shooting.
As if to symbolize the team effort, Wilkens would credit the victory to Silas, who came off the bench to average 3.4 points per game, but whose leadership was invaluable.
"Look anywhere on our team, and you'll see Paul's influence," Wilkens said.
You'll also see World Champions.
See also: NBA History: 1979 Finals