Just before the start of today's NBA final-round game against Seattle, Bullet Coach Dick Motta will remind his players about how crucial the next two hours will be to their championship hopes.
He probably will talk to them about a ladder, explaining, as he said to reporters yesterday, "that there are so many steps on the ladder and we are running out of steps to the top. We don't want to miss any when we are this close."
It will be Motta's way of telling them why he thinks this soldout 1:30 p.m. contest at Capital Centre (WTOP-TV-9 and WTOP-AM-1500) is the most important in the history of a franchise that has never won a league title. The Bullest are favored by 6 1/2 points.
If the Bullets win, they will have a 2-1 lead in the series when they return to Seattle for games four and five. And they will know that they will play a sixth game at the Centre next Sunday.
But if they lose, the Sonics can wrap up the best-of-seven series without leaving Seattle again.
"I don't think I'm over exaggerating the game's importance," Motta said. "It's not a 'must' game but it's damn important.
"No game, even in the Philly series, was this important. We knew if we lost game six, there still was a game seven. But Seattle is so difficult to beat out there. I wouldn't want to be put in that position.
"I think we are a better basketball team, but they aren't going to give us anything. We still have to play in that madhouse out there."
Sonic forward John Johnson agreed with Motta's thinking. "If they lose this one," Johnson said, "they can forget about the whole series."
The clubs already have played eight quarters of basketball, yet they have proven little to each other. Neither feels it has performed to maximum capability, but both believe they can win the championship without changing much.
There have been some patterns. The Bullets have shown that they can't hold onto a lead and that they can win by getting the ball to Elvin Hayes and Bob Dandridge. Seattle has found it can win on the strength of outside shooting, but it needs to outerbound Washington to be most effective.
"I see some trends forming," said Motta, "but nothing substantial. We seem to be okay if we go inside, to the belly of their defense, and we'll work on that until they stop it."
But Seattle's Paul Silas said it's rebounding, not inside scoring, that is the key.
"When the Bullets outrebounded us in game two, it made the difference," he said. "We've been working on correcting that in practice. We've got to do a better job on the boards."
Motta would like to see what happens to the Bullets if he can get Kevin Grevey and Larry Wright to supply the outside shooting to complement Dandridge and Hayes' inside scoring. In game two, Grevey and Wright combined for only seven points; Tom Henderson's 20-point production probably saved the Bullets from defeat.
Seattle Coach Lenny Wilkens would love to have Marvin Webster return to his first-game form, when he had 17 points and 14 rebounds. That output, combined with blaring outside scoring by his guards, was enough to overcome a 19-point Bullet lead. Webster only had 10 points in the second game.
Wilkens, however, would not like a repeat of Dandridge's 34-point outburst in the same contest. Nor would John Johnson, who limited the Washington forward to six points in the opener, then sprained an ankle trying to guard him four nights later.
Dandridge, who has had success in the past working against Johnson near the basket, found that tactic didn't work very well in the first game. So he went back the next time out to the formula that was so successfull against Julius Erving.
He began starting early on fastbreak opportunities, so he could grab half-court passes from Wes Unseld and Hayes and race down for layups or short jumpers before Johnson could arrive. And instead of turning against Johnson and trying to back into the basket off the Bullets' set offense, he stayed in the corners and around the perimeter and took more jump shots.
"The more we run, the better it is for me," said Dandridge. "That opens up more options and lets me get off more open jump shots."
To free Hayes more often, the Bullets utilized the picks and screens set by the massive Unseld, who already could be taking a toll on Webster and Silas, who complained he was sore from running into Unseld after game two.
"There are going to be three spurts in most games. If you get one early, it's naive to think that they aren't going to come back, especially against an opponent this good.
"But that's what the clock is all about. It was put in to keep this a spectator sport. It doesn't take long to explode in this league. A couple of three-point plays and it can start.
"The other night, when we got 16 ahead, I was willing to let it all get away in the first half and go down five. We probably could have kept it at 15 but we might have ended up with three guys having four fouls at halftime. I'll take no guys with four fouls at that stage over an eight-point lead anytime."
Yet Motta is aware the Bullets have lacked a killer instinct all season. Even with their injury problems, their ecord could have been substantially better if they had been able to put away a number of teams after grabbing big leads.
"One thing no one should forget," said Motta."At this stage, no team is going to give up no matter how far they are behind. Why should they?"
The Bullets already have won $132,500 by advancing to the final round. The winner of the championship picks up $150,000 more, so Washington could earn $282,500, or about $25,681 per 11 equal shares.However, the Bullets probably will give out more than 11 shares . . . Grevey cut down on his practice time yesterday to give his sore knee and ankle rest.