Sixers History | Beltway Battles
The 2021 first round matchup marks the first time that the Philadelphia 76ers have taken on the Washington Wizards in the NBA playoffs. Don’t worry, though this retrospective has plenty of Sixers versus Bullets action.
Five times between 1971 and 1986, we took on the Washington/Baltimore Bullets in the playoffs winning three of those series. Here’s a brief recap of those showdowns:
The first-ever playoff meeting between our franchises took place in 1971. The Sixers finished that season with 47 wins. The victories were second-most in the Eastern Conference behind only the New York Knicks. However, the NBA’s playoff seeding at the time gave the top two playoff seeds to division winners. New York won the Atlantic Division over the Sixers with 52 wins. Meanwhile the Baltimore Bullets won the Central Division with 42 wins; therefore, they were awarded the No. 2 seed in the East and home court advantage over the Sixers in the dramatic series.
In Game 1, 34-year-old Hal Greer produced 30 points and six assists as the Sixers gave Baltimore a thrashing on the road, 125-112. The Bullets then proceeded to win three straight games.
On the brink of elimination, the Sixers staved off an unwanted vacation thanks to Billy Cunningham. In one of the great playoff performances in team history, the Kangaroo Kid scored 32 points and grabbed 20 rebounds. Guard Archie Clark was riding shotgun with 31 points. With their powers combined, the Sixers held on for a 104-103 victory.
Cunningham was again magnificent in Game 6 (33 points, 16 rebounds, five assists), as the Sixers again squeezed out a win, 98-94.
With a do-or-die Game 7, the NBA’s seeding rules ruefully made an impact. Despite having the better regular season record, the Sixers played this game on the road in Baltimore.
In Game 7, Cunningham again played possessed with 30 points and 19 rebounds, while the shaking-and-baking Clark notched a remarkable 37 points.
But the brawn and homecourt of Baltimore were decisive.
Their powerful and athletic frontline of Wes Unseld, Gus Johnson, and Jack Marin combined for 68 points, 55 rebounds, and 16 assists as Baltimore pulled out a 128-120 win.
The first playoff meeting between our franchises was in 1971 when the 76ers took on the Baltimore Bullets.
The first playoff meeting between our franchises was in 1971 when the 76ers took on the Baltimore Bullets. pic.twitter.com/vS8XZvAQQq
— Sixers History (@SixersHistory) May 22, 2021
The franchises next met in the 1978 Eastern Conference Finals. The 44-win Bullets had now moved to Washington and were underdogs against the top-seed Sixers (55 wins).
The Sixers were led by Julius Erving (21.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg) and Doug Collins (20.0 ppg) in the series while Washington was powered offensively by Elvin Hayes and Bob Dandridge.
After once again falling behind 3-1 in a series versus the Bullets, the Sixers won Game 5 at home, 107-94, to save the season. Erving and Collins practically mirrored each other in scoring that contest.
Erving: 24 points, 11-19 fg
Collins: 24 points, 10-17 fg
Game 6 was a nail-biter, but the Bullets finished just a hair ahead, 101-99, to capture the Eastern Conference crown. Collins was pure fire that game, going off for 33 points. But in the stretch run of the game neither team could score as all the big offensive guns went silent.
The only field goal in the final 2:35 of the game came from Unseld, who was notably not any sort of scoring machine. However, the bucket came in true Unseld fashion: cleaning up on the offensive glass.
Unseld’s putback was the Bullets’ fourth shot attempt on the possession and it gave them a trip to the NBA Finals.
Losing this series caused a dramatic shakeup for the Sixers. World B. Free was traded to the San Diego Clippers for a 1984 first round draft pick (more on that below!). Meanwhile George McGinnis was traded to the Denver Nuggets for Bobby Jones. And the team also drafted Maurice Cheeks.
The new pieces took a season to gel (just 47 wins in 1979), but the 76ers won 59 games in 1980. Meanwhile Washington had gone on to win the 1978 NBA title and had also appeared in the 1979 Finals. However, with Unseld finally succumbing to age and Dandridge injured, they won just 39 games in 1980.
The Sixers made quick and easy work of the Bullets in the best-of-three first round series.
Game 1 was a 111-96 blowout led by Caldwell Jones’ 18 points and 26 rebounds. Game 2 was a bit closer, but the Sixers handled business, 112-104. Erving was the leader this time around with 31 points, seven boards, and five dimes.
In retrospect, it would have been much nicer to have a more thrilling series here, since the Sixers and Bullets captured the East crown every year between 1977 and 1980.
The Sixers would continue racking up Eastern crowns (1982, 1983) and an NBA title (1983), while the Bullets rebuilt on the fly in the early 1980s.
The Bullets had made themselves into a brutal and physical squad led by Jeff Ruland, Cliff Robinson, Jeff Malone, and Rick Mahorn. Fortunately, the Sixers by this point had added Moses Malone and also drafted Charles Barkley with that 1984 draft pick acquired from the Clippers.
The Bullets scraped up 40 wins that year, but were overwhelmed by the superior talent of the Sixers, which won 58 games. This was a fairly easy first round series win for the Sixers (3-1), but the next year would be a dogfight.
The Sixers entered the 1986 first round with 54 wins, while Washington only mustered 39 victories. Malone would miss that postseason, however, with an eye injury, evening the odds somewhat for the Bullets.
In Game 1, the absence of Moses did not appear to matter much, as Barkley stormed his way to 26 points, 22 rebounds, and seven assists. Veteran big man Dan Roundfield was a force off the Washington bench with 20 points on 8-11 shooting. Plus, future Sixer Manute Bol blocked nine shots.
The Sixers built a formidable 94-77 lead with 3:49 left in the opener.
And then the Bullets scored 18 straight points to finish the game capped by a miraculous Dudley Bradley banking in a twirling three-pointer at the buzzer.
Bullets 95, Sixers 94.
Washington and Philly later met in back-to-back postseasons (1985 and 1986).
Although the Sixers won both times, Bullet Dudley Bradley's miracle game-winner from 1986 is easily the most memorable play. pic.twitter.com/J6YDamlBLi
— Sixers History (@SixersHistory) May 22, 2021
After that Game 1 stunner, the Sixers reversed the situation in Game 2. Down 88-81 with 7:56 left in the game, the team finished the game on a 21-9 run to win by a final score of 102-97. Barkley had 27 points and 20 rebounds. Fourteen of Sir Charles’ points came in the fourth quarter.
Game 3 was another rally-from-behind win. The Sixers used a 33-10 second-half surge to put away the Bullets by a final tally of 91-86. The rollercoaster series continued in Game 4, as the Bullets silenced Erving & Co. by scoring the final seven points of the game. Jeff Malone sank a runner with 43 seconds left to give Washington the lead for good. Final score, 116-111.
After all that drama, this series ended pretty flat with a 134-109 blowout victory for the 76ers. Barkley was again a bruising force going for 19 points, 15 boards, and 12 assists in the win. Rookie forward Terry Catledge was the high man with 27 points for the Sixers.
And since then, the two franchises haven’t met in the playoffs.
This 2021 series puts an end to that 35-year drought.