Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
The Bullets gave a stunning answer last night to those critics who had called last year's play-off domination of Philadelphia an accident.
Taking on the revised 76ers before a startled crowd at the Spectrum, Washington turned in a brilliant performance for 3 1/2 quarters, opening a 25 point lead before suffering a typical NBA letdown.
A 76er rally cut the final score to 121-111, but that margin gives little indication as to how much the Bullets overwhelmed their talented opponents.
Suddenly, Washington no longer has to deal with any credibility gap after its league-championship season. As guard Larry Wright put it: "People are going to have to beat us now. We are on the top and we have to be knocked off."
Philadelphia thought it would be the first to bring the Bullets back to earth in this early season confrontation. But despite two new starters and a new offense the 76ers had the same old problems against Washington that cost them in last year's playoffs: rebounding and defense.
With their reserves shooting 68 percent and scoring 61 points, the Bullets won on the strength of their depth, their hustle and their ability to control the game's tempo. Until the last six minutes, they were hitting at almost a 70 percent rate from the floor, much of the time without much resistance from the 76ers.
Much as in their first two victories of the year, almost every Bullet shared in the glory of this triumph, which had the fans in the City of Brotherly Love heartily booing their 76ers by the end of the third period.
The victory was even more impressive considering that leading scorer Elvin Hayes had only nine points on four-of-15 shooting. A normal night from him and heaven knows what the Philly fans would have done. As it was Hayes' teammates made 44 of 65 shots.
Starting with 10 points from Greg Ballard in the opening period against Julius Erving and continuing with the marksmanship of Wright and Charles Johnson in the second (a combined nine for 12 in the quarter), Washington looked every bit a league champion in the opening half. In the second half, the starters took over, pulling to that 25-point bulge when Wes Unseld sank a layup off a Mitch Kupchak feed to end the third period.
Johnson finished with 19 points, Bob Dandridge had 18, Kevin Grevey 17 and five others had a least 10 points. Unseld, Tom Henderson and Dandridge also contributed six assists apiece, the result of the Bullets' fine offensive execution. And they outrebounded Philly by a misleading five, since that total was in double figures for most of the game.
Not until the 76ers went with a ragtag combination in the fourth period did they make the game somewhat respectable. They cut the Bullets' lead to six points with 2:09 left, but a couple of misses by Erving and two foul shots apiece by Unseld and Henderson ended the threat.
"We already are a better team now than we were any time last year," said Coach Dick Motta. "We just thought we had it won too soon, but you know, in this league, a 20-point lead is always dangerous."
This perhaps wasn't a fair test of how good the 76ers are going to be this year. They are learning to play without both George McGinnis and Lloyd Free while also adapting to a new continuity offense. While they are trying to stop their old offensive habits, clubs like the Bullets are quickly taking advantage of lapses.
"I don't know if we are really playing all that well," said Unseld. "We are just further along and it might catch up to us in April. A lot of teams are working in new people and new plays. Once they get things together, they will be tougher to handle."
But for the time being, the Bullets are dominating the matchups against the 76ers and that is where games are won in the NBA. Dandridge is capable of controlling Erving, Philly's key man, and Washington's bench is stronger and more consistent.
The Bullet reserves were magnificent in this one. Johnson got into one of his characteristics hot streaks in the second period and probably could have made baskefs while sitting down. With Wright picking up the pace, the inside game opened up for Dandridge, who had eight points in the quarter. Of the Bullets' 32 points in that stanza, only two came from the starters.
But Philly hadn't seen anything yet. Now Motta had a rested first unit and those fresh players fired away at a 72 percent pace in the third.
Against such torrid shooting, the 76ers gradually fell further and further behind. From a nine-point spread, Washington exploded behind excellent passing, a nifty fast break and balanced scoring - six players had at least four points in the quarter - to bring forth a chorus of Bronx cheers from the crowd.