It does not come often, that tingle of excitement when fine players meld together to produce fine teams. Yet it filled Capital Centre Friday night, as did a feeling of deja vu. The Bullets were taking our minds back exactly three years, to their zenith as a franchise.
Surely you recall April 1975. The Bullets had come off their regular-season record ever, 60-22, and rolled by Buffalo and Boston in the playoffs. Bob McAdoo seemed to score a zillion points for the Braves, but the Bullets won the seven-game series.
Scoring machines might make the playoffs: teams win them, as the Bullets have discovered all too often and the San Antonio Gervins might well learn this season. George Gervin is doing a McAdoo on the Bullets: the Bullets are remembering, finally, who to take advantage of what every player does best.
The most important number in game three was 33. That was the total number of Bullet assists. It is why Gervin and Larry Kenon could score 70 points between them and the Bullets could grab a two-games-to-one advantage. Start good, won driving as they sat the track.
San Antonio was firing from only two chambers - and its defense was a Spur-of-the-moment thing. Washington, meanwhile, had five players with at least four assists - and one of them was not the man who has dominated the series, Elvin Hayes. One never is sure which Hayes will show up for the playoffs. Will it be E or e? At the moment, it is E .
And for reason far beyond his points.
In the first two games, the Spurs followed the time-honored notion that the way to beat the Bullets is to double-team Hayes. So Hayes passed off for a total of 10 baskets, early all of them layups.
Game three found the Spurs trying to stop Elvin the Feeder. The man who ordinarily would double-team Hayes was staying close to his own Bullets. Hayes was left with just one defender to beat; he hit 12 of 15 shots.
Hayes is 37 for 61 from the floor, with 38 rebounds, 12 assists and nine blocked shots. And yet Bob Dandridge has been nearly as significant, because he has given the Bullets the small-forward threat unseen since Mike Riordan lost his jump shot in the NBA finals against Golden State in '75.
Before those four ungolden days in May three years ago, the Bullets had a wonderful flair for highlighting each player's special skill. Wes Unseld's rebounding and passing complemented Kevin Porter's speed. Porter's passes and penetrations set up Riordan's and Phil Chenier's skills at shooting. Hayes ties everything together - at both ends of the court.
Friday saw much of the same chemistry. Unseld's rebounds and outlet passes gave Tom Henderson a chance to run, and hit Dandridge and Charlie Johnson for open jumpers while the Spurs were nowhere to be seen. Hayes and Dandridge combined for 55 points. The Bullet bench, quite thin three years ago, mustered 42 points Friday.
Johnson is the '78 version of Nick Weatherspoon-instant offense off the bench, a relatively unheralded shooter who suddenly goes unconscious and hits everything inside the Beltway.
When Johnson threw in a line-drive 13-footer that had absolutely no margin for error late in the game, I honestly imagined a crowd yelling: "Spoon, Spoon."
Of course, the Spurs are helping the Bullets. James Silas and Mike Gale were a combined two for 16 Friday night. Billy Paultz and Coby Dietrick were the two most anonymous near-7-footers the playoffs may see this season.
"The other guys were more or less hesitant," Dandridge said. "They were content to let Ice (Gervin for you trendies who only show up for the playoffs) and Kenon do it. If they continue to do this, we've go a good shot."
The difference between the '78 Bullets and the '75 Bullets is that the later stayed at a dizzy peak far longer, partly because they stayed healthy nearly the entire season. But this '78 team is deeper, although the playoff opposition seems a bit more difficult.
There is a playoff chart in the Washington dressing room dotted with numbers and dollar signs - and "intensity" almost literally is the bottom line, the word seen more than any other in the message of inspiration.
Washington's victory Friday put the Spurs at a disadvantage. A Bullet victory today could break them. To be blunt about it, the Bullets are giving a damn - and earning the area's affection once again.
As near as could be determined, the Bullets scored 35 baskets - or 70 points - on shots from 10 feet or less Friday night. At least half of them came on layups, either off fast breaks or after passes from Unseld off set plays.
"We're loose now, we're running," said Dandridge. "All of us are playing and everyone is into the game. We couldn't ask for anything more at the moment."