1978 NBA Finals
The 1978 NBA World Championship Series was the championship round of the National Basketball Association (NBA)'s 1977–78 season, and the culmination of the season's playoffs. The series featured the Western Conference champion Seattle SuperSonics against the Eastern Conference champion Washington Bullets. The Bullets defeated the SuperSonics in seven games to win the NBA championship. Bullets power forward/center Wes Unseld was named MVP of the series. Before the Cleveland Cavaliers' Game 7 win at Golden State in the 2016 NBA Finals, this was the last time a road team had won Game 7 in the NBA Finals. The 1978 World Championship Series was the first NBA Finals series since the 1958 World Championship Series in which both teams had under 50 wins, and is the only NBA Finals to feature two teams with under 50 wins in an 82-game season.
The Seattle SuperSonics had a disappointing start to the season, going 5–17 to begin with. Bob Hopkins, who replaced former Boston Celtics center Bill Russell as coach, was fired and Lenny Wilkens returned for a second tour of duty. The Sonics were led by center Jack Sikma, forwards Fred Brown, Paul Silas and John Johnson, and guards Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams. With Wilkens' experience being a key factor, the Sonics turned their season around, finishing with 47 wins and the fourth seed in the West. In the playoffs, they defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in a three-game miniseries, then upset the top-seeded and defending champion Portland Trail Blazers (who lost center Bill Walton in the second game of the series) in six games, before announcing their finals debut with a six-game win over the Denver Nuggets.
The Washington Bullets franchise made the Finals twice before in the 1970s, but were swept on both occasions, first by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971 when they were still in Baltimore, and then by the Cinderella Golden State Warriors in 1975. The Bullets kept some of the personnel from that 1975 team, including All-Stars Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes, but Dick Motta was now in his second year of coaching duty. The Bullets struggled with injuries during the season, but managed to finish with 44 wins, good for the third seed in the East. In the playoffs, the Bullets disposed the Atlanta Hawks in a two-game first round series, then ousted the San Antonio Spurs in six games, before making the finals again with a six-game win over the defending Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia 76ers.
From a KENS-TV Spurs broadcast in the San Antonio series after Washington took a 3-1 lead, Motta adopted the expression "The 'opera' isn't over 'til the fat lady sings" to warn Bullets fans against braggadocio. Motta also used an upbeat ostinato, "Wait for the fat lady!", to encourage the fans.
Road to the FinalsEdit
|Seattle SuperSonics (Western Conference champion)||Washington Bullets (Eastern Conference champion)|
|Defeated the (5) Los Angeles Lakers, 2–1||First Round||Defeated the (6) Atlanta Hawks, 2–0|
|Defeated the (1) Portland Trail Blazers, 4–2||Conference Semifinals||Defeated the (2) San Antonio Spurs, 4–2|
|Defeated the (2) Denver Nuggets, 4–2||Conference Finals||Defeated the (1) Philadelphia 76ers, 4–2|
Regular season seriesEdit
Washington won the regular season series 3–1.
November 15, 1977
|Seattle SuperSonics 109, Washington Bullets 111|
|Game||Date||Home Team||Result||Road Team|
|Game 1||May 21||Seattle||106–102||Washington|
|Game 2||May 25||Washington||106–98||Seattle|
|Game 3||May 28||Washington||92–93||Seattle|
|Game 4||May 30||Seattle||116–120 (OT)||Washington|
|Game 5||June 2||Seattle||98–94||Washington|
|Game 6||June 4||Washington||117–82||Seattle|
|Game 7||June 7||Seattle||99–105||Washington|
Bullets win series 4–3
12:00 p.m. PDT
|Washington Bullets 102, Seattle SuperSonics 106|
|Scoring by quarter: 31–25, 27–24, 26–24, 18–33|
|Pts: Grevey 27
Rebs: Hayes 9
Asts: Henderson 7
|Pts: Brown 30|
Rebs: Webster 14
Asts: Johnson 5
|Seattle leads the series, 1–0|
The Bullets, behind Kevin Grevey's 27 and Elvin Hayes's 21 points, held a 19-point lead in the fourth quarter at the Seattle Center Coliseum. But, the Sonics staged a comeback in front of the home crowd, led by "instant offense" guard Fred Brown. Brown scored 16 points in the last nine minutes to finish with 32 and give the SuperSonics the win.
9:00 p.m. EDT
|Seattle SuperSonics 98, Washington Bullets 106|
|Scoring by quarter: 16–29, 36–27, 19–24, 27–26|
|Pts: Williams 24
Rebs: Webster 12
Asts: Johnson, Silas, Williams 4
|Pts: Dandridge 34|
Rebs: Unseld 15
Asts: Henderson, Unseld 5
|Series tied, 1–1|
In an unusual 1-2-2-1-1 scheduling format, the next two games were played at the Capital Centre, the Bullets' home floor. Wes Unseld defended inside on Marvin Webster and Jack Sikma, pulled down 15 rebounds, and handed out five assists. This work enabled Bob Dandridge to score 34 points and Elvin Hayes 25 as the Bullets evened the series, winning their first NBA Finals game following nine consecutive losses.
1:30 p.m. EDT
|Seattle SuperSonics 93, Washington Bullets 92|
|Scoring by quarter: 24–24, 25–23, 20–20, 24–25|
|Pts: Webster, Williams 20
Rebs: Silas 14
Asts: Brown, Johnson, Sikma, Webster, Williams 2
|Pts: Hayes 29|
Rebs: Hayes 20
Asts: Dandridge 6
|Seattle leads the series, 2–1|
Dennis Johnson was superb on defense, blocking seven shots and holding Kevin Grevey to 1-for-14 shooting. Paul Silas, the SuperSonics' veteran leader off the bench, helped shut down the Bullets' big men.
With 10 seconds remaining and the SuperSonics leading 93-90, Johnson's inbounds pass was stolen by Tom Henderson, who scored to make it 93-92 with five seconds left. Silas then stepped on the baseline trying to make the subsequent inbounds pass, turning the ball over to the Bullets. Bob Dandridge missed at the buzzer, however, and the SuperSonics picked up a victory on the road.
6:00 p.m. PDT
|Washington Bullets 120, Seattle SuperSonics 116 (OT)|
|Scoring by quarter: 23–25, 25–31, 30–31, 28–19, Overtime: 14–10|
|Pts: Dandrigde 23
Rebs: Hayes 13
Asts: Henderson 11
|Pts: Johnson 33|
Rebs: Webster 15
Asts: Silas 6
|Series tied, 2–2|
Game 4 was held in the Seattle Kingdome because the Seattle Center Coliseum was tied up with a mobile-home show. As a result, the Bullets had to contend with a then-record playoff crowd of over 39,000 fans.
The SuperSonics led by 15 with two minutes left in the third quarter. At this point, the Bullet guards, who had been victimized all series by Gus Williams and emerging star Dennis Johnson, started to assert themselves, especially reserves Charles Johnson and Larry Wright.
At the start of the final period, Dennis Johnson was elbowed hard in the ribs and left the game for a short time. With Charles Johnson, Wright, Mitch Kupchak and Bob Dandridge in the lineup, the Bullets stormed back and took a 103-101 lead with about 3½ minutes left in the game. Dennis Johnson then returned and went on a barrage, scoring first to tie the game, blocking a Dandridge shot, getting an offensive rebound, and pushing the Sonics to a 104-103 lead with a foul shot. Johnson would finish with 33 points, seven rebounds and three blocks.
Dandridge answered with a three-point play that returned the lead to Washington, 106-104. Seattle got the ball back and tied it with "instant offense" Fred Brown's jumper from "downtown". With two seconds left, Dandridge got a good shot in the lane, only to have Johnson block it, forcing overtime. But then, Charles Johnson became an instant hero by hitting three quick shots in overtime to give the Bullets a 120-116 win. The Bullets had tied the series at two wins apiece.
6:00 p.m. PDT
|Washington Bullets 94, Seattle SuperSonics 98|
|Scoring by quarter: 24–23, 17–29, 26–24, 27–22|
|Pts: Grevey 22
Rebs: Dandridge 10
Asts: Henderson 6
|Pts: Brown 26|
Rebs: Webster 13
Asts: Johnson 7
|Seattle leads the series, 3–2|
The SuperSonics returned to the Seattle Center Coliseum and eked out a close win. "Downtown" Freddie Brown had 26 points and Dennis Johnson 24 to carry Seattle to a 98-94 win and the series lead. The Bullets lost it at the line, making only 9 of 20 free throws in the second half. Even so, they cut Seattle's 11-point lead to two with less than two minutes to go before Jack Sikma hit three free throws down the stretch.
1:30 p.m. EDT
|Seattle SuperSonics 82, Washington Bullets 117|
|Scoring by quarter: 21–19, 14–28, 26–37, 21–33|
|Pts: Brown 17
Rebs: Webster 12
Asts: Williams 6
|Pts: Hayes 21|
Rebs: Hayes 15
Asts: Ballard 6
|Series tied, 3–3|
Game 6, in Washington, was all Bullets, 117-82. With the Washington backcourt continuing to struggle, Bullets coach Dick Motta inserted Greg Ballard at forward and moved Bob Dandridge to guard, a risky move considering Dandridge had played very little guard. Ballard and Dandridge produced a run that gave the Bullets a 12-point lead at the half. Washington scored 70 points in the second half, and the SuperSonics weren't up to that pace. Mitch Kupchak added 19 points, and Ballard had 12 points and 12 rebounds. The 35-point margin of victory was an NBA Finals record that stood until the 1998 NBA Finals Game 3 (96-54, 42 points).
6:00 p.m. PDT
|Washington Bullets 105, Seattle SuperSonics 99|
|Scoring by quarter: 31–28, 22–17, 26–21, 26–33|
|Pts: Dandridge, Johnson 19
Rebs: Unseld 9
Asts: Unseld 6
|Pts: Webster 27|
Rebs: Webster 19
Asts: Williams 5
|Washington wins the series 4–3|
Dennis Johnson, who before the 1977-78 playoffs was a relatively unknown guard from Pepperdine University, had grown into a star in this series in front of a national TV audience. However, DJ would miss every one of his 14 shots in this game. Fellow guard Gus Williams was a bit more accurate, shooting 4-for-12. SuperSonics big men Marvin Webster scored 27 points and Jack Sikma 21 to take up the slack, and that kept it close.
With 90 seconds left, Seattle whittled the lead from 11 points down to four, but Mitch Kupchak came up with a three-point play. Fred Brown, who finished with 21 points off the bench, hit a short jumper, then Paul Silas got a tip-in to cut it to 101-99. Silas then fouled Wes Unseld, a 55-percent shooter from the line during the playoffs. He hit two free throws, and moments later Washington sealed it with a Bob Dandridge dunk, 105-99.
Charles Johnson and Dandridge each scored 19 points for the Bullets, while Elvin Hayes fouled out with 12 points, a development that brought a couple of needling questions from the writers about his past failures in the playoffs and Hayes' cheerful comeback "Whatever else they can say about me, they also got to say E's a world champion. E wears the ring." Unseld would be named Finals MVP.
After the climactic Game 7 victory, Motta celebrated with his team wearing a beer-soaked The Opera Isn't Over 'Til The Fat Lady Sings T-shirt. He said, "What made the championship so great was that we weren’t supposed to win it. We came a long way. Most people didn’t give us a chance, but I felt all along we could. I really did."
|GP||Games played||GS||Games started||MPG||Minutes per game|
|FG%||Field-goal percentage||3P%||3-point field-goal percentage||FT%||Free-throw percentage|
|RPG||Rebounds per game||APG||Assists per game||SPG||Steals per game|
|BPG||Blocks per game||PPG||Points per game|
- Washington Bullets
- Seattle SuperSonics
Nationwide TV coverage of the 1978 NBA finals was broadcast by CBS Sports, with Brent Musburger (All Games) on play-by-play and Rick Barry (All Games), Steve Jones (Game 1), recently retired John Havlicek (Games 2, 4 and 7), Gus Johnson (Game 3) and Keith Erickson (Games 4 and 5) on color commentary. Locally, the 1978 NBA Finals was broadcast by CBS affiliates: WTOP-TV in Washington, D.C. and KIRO-TV in Seattle, Washington.
Local market coverageEdit
The flagship stations of each station of each team carried their local play-by-play calls. In Washington, D.C., WTOP-AM carried the series, with Frank Herzog on play-by-play. In Seattle, KOMO–AM, carried the series with Bob Blackburn on play-by-play.
The NBA received much criticism over the fact that the seven-game series was stretched out over eighteen days, presumably for television; it remains the longest (in total number of days) playoff series ever played in any sport. (Even the 1989 World Series, interrupted for ten days by an earthquake, lasted only fifteen days.)
Both teams made it back to the finals the following season, with the Bullets holding home court advantage. That season the Bullets won 54 games while the Sonics won 52. The Bullets eliminated the Atlanta Hawks (4-3) and San Antonio Spurs (4-3) to advance while the Sonics eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers (4-1) and the Phoenix Suns (4-3). The Bullets appeared to have momentum with a Game 1 victory at the Capital Centre, but the Sonics took the next four games to win their only NBA championship.
The next time a road team won a Game 7 in the finals would be in 2016, when the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors at Oakland.
Washington Bullets roster
Seattle SuperSonics roster
- "1978 NBA Finals – Game 1". Retrieved 18 October 2016.
- "1978 NBA Finals – Game 2". Retrieved 18 October 2016.
- "1978 NBA Finals – Game 3". Retrieved 18 October 2016.
- "1978 NBA Finals – Game 4". Retrieved 18 October 2016.
- "1978 NBA Finals – Game 5". Retrieved 18 October 2016.
- "1978 NBA Finals – Game 6". Retrieved 18 October 2016.
- "1978 NBA Finals – Game 7". Retrieved 18 October 2016.
- "When Washington Went to the Opera". Retrieved 8 April 2003.