Two scenes tells us something of the calamity. The Bullets butchered this one, handing over victory to a lesser team, and maybe it began with five minutes left in the third quarter. At that point, the Bullets led by 17 points, 77-60, and Coach Dick Motta shouted at his men during a timeout.
"Put 'em to sleep, put 'em to sleep," Motta said.
The coach is a firebrand, an emotional man who loves professional basketball because he loves to win. Never before, not in 10 seasons in the pros, had Motta taken a team to the NBA championship series. And here he was, the first time out, seeing his Bullets run up a 17-point lead on the other guys' home court.
"Put 'em to sleep," Motta said , and he made a fist and he shoved it forward strongly, as if knocking out each of the Seattle Supersonics himself.
No one was listening.
The Bullets sat on the bench impassively. The coach's excitement went unshared. These are old hands, the Bullets. For Elvin Hayes, it's been 10 years in the pros. Westley Unseld, too. Bobby Dandridge is in his ninth season. For them, a coach's fervent imploring means nothing. This is a job.
Then the Bullets' grew to 19 points. So much, everyone thought, for Sonicsteria. "A Sonic Boom Is Faster Than a Speeding Bullet," said the sign of a crazy whose love for the sonics overwhelmed his grasp of Physics. These Sonic were flukes, everyone believed, and the Bullets, a real basketball team, were exposing the frauds.
But then the lead was down to nine, at 84-75, and motta sent in a substitute for Hayes, the Bullets' main man. The Sonics were on a tear, the arena exploding with noise, and the Bullets were no longer speeding. They were crashing and burning. And Hayes, who with Dandridge has carried the Bullets in these playoffs, didn't like what was happening.
As he walked off the court, giving up his job to substitute, Hayes looked down at Motta, crouching at courtside, and said, "You shouldn't do that, Dick."
Hayes later said he didn't say those words. A reporter seated near the Bullets' bench heard them. In any case, Hayes was correct in his assessment. With the Sonics booming, it was time to have Hayes in the game, not on the bench for two minutes. The Bullets, and Hayes, were never the same after that.
Hayes took only one shot the last 8 1/2 minutes, a layup that gave the Bullets a 91-88 lead. When it mattered most, Hayes and Dandridge did the least. That layup by Hayes was the sum of the stars' scoring contribution in the fourth quarter. They are averaging 44 points a game in these playoffs, But Hayes had only nine and Dandridge two in the second half yesterday.
Kevin Grevey says it wasn't the big guys' fault. Grevey scored 27 yesterday in a magnificents performance, 17 coming in the second half.
"We were executing the offense very well," Grevey said. "We were getting the ball down low to Elvin and Bobby, and they were getting their shots. But later, Seattle started putting more pressure on our guards and we weren't getting the ball inside as well."
Hayes didn't want to talk about that, either. He left the Bullets' locker room in a hurry, moving past reporters, calling back over his shoulder"See ya later." He was smiling and stopped every few feet to sign autographs for children. On the team bus, sitting in the driver's seat, he said, "I don't really know what happened. We panicked some. I didn't get the ball much and maybe I should have, but that's hindsight."
So the Bullets didn't put 'em to sleep when they should have, and maybe Hayes didn't need his fourth-quarter rest in the middle of a Seattle binge. Those things are open to conjecture. What was painfully clear, even to the Bullets' loyalists, was that Seattle ran their socks off while the Bullets stood around being proud of that 19-point lead.
"We went dead and they caught life," Grevey said. "We didn't push the ball up the floor like we had been. We were complacent. When you-re up by 19, you have to have killer instinct. I don't think we had a fast break after that big lead. We were too content and we played dumb."
One statistic is telling.
The Sonics had 21 offensive rebounds. The Bullets had eight. To get an offensive rebound, you have to want it. The defender has the advantage, being closer to the basket. A rebound taken by an offensive man is a rebound dearly earned, a reward for hustle and desire. To be beaten, 21-8, in offensive rebounds is shameful for a team with players named Hayes and Unseld and Dandridge.
"They got all long rebounds," Motta said, speaking of Seattle's success with rebounds that bounced far from the rim. "When you can't get your long rebounds, you can't cry about anything."
No one cried about anything in the Bullets' locker room. This is a job. this was game one of, possibly, seven. You figure the home team is going to win the first game, anyway. So it's no big deal to blow a 19-point lead.
And, in fact it may not be. The idea here is that the Bullets had it too easy for too long yesterday. They were winning without any significant contribution from Hayes and Dandridge. And when the shooting went cold - eight of 23 in the fourth quarter - they had no inside offense to fall back on.
Meanwhile, Seattle went crazy from afar, making nine shots from outside 15 feet. Fred Brown was seven of nine in the fourth quarter, five thrown in from Pudget Sound.
Those are unusual circumstances. They will not be repeated often enough for Seattle to win this series. The Bullets in six.