The Milwaukee Bucks took Charles Johnson low four times. Because the Bullet guard is a little guy, barely 6 feet tall, the Bucks thought to send a big guard, 6-foot-5, in close to the basket and let him shoot over johnson. Four times the Bucks dumped their regular offense to take advantage of the mismatch. Three times they failed.
As intricate a team game as basketball is, it is mostly man-on-man confrontations. The percentagesd seemed to be in the Bucks' favor here, for their man was physically superior. But three times, Johnson caused the Bucks to throw the ball away. They became an awkward team, trying to do something they couldn't. By his quickness and intelligence, Johnson had defeated the bigger man.
In his little battle, Johnson had won the war for the Bullets. From one point behind on this night, the Bullets went nine points ahead. They won by four.
It is difficult to explain why the Bullets are a great team. The word "great" is used advisedly here. The Bullets have proven they rank with any team since Bill Russell's Celtics won 10 of 11 Natinal Basketball Association Championships from 1959 to '69. After winning the league championship last June, the Bullets had the league's best won-lost record this regular season. If they win the playoffs again, no one will demean the accomplishment.
"Coming back from Seattle last year after we won the championship, a writer from a national magazine asked a queation," said Dick Motta, the Bullet coach. "He asked if winning it this way meant as much as it would have if Bill Walton had played for Portland."
Motta said that without anger or recrimination. He is a professional coach 11 years now and he knows that the outside world-the fans and media-always pushes for something more wonderful, more unreachable. A portswriter would have asked Neil Armstrong if he thought he could handle Mars next.
The magazine writer's unspoken premise that Motta's men were fluke champions by virtue of Walton's broke foot had been disporved by the Bullet's performance this season. Yet Motta, who knows how the world works, feels compelled to say, "We still have something to prove. We're not a dynasty and we know we have to play hard to win."
The Bullets have something to prove only to those unfortunates who believe Dr. J invented basketball. The bullets are the greatest basketball team no one ever knew. They have no national media favorite, no Havlicek or Barry; they have no eccentrics, no Walton in combat with the FBI, no Chamberlain infected with an omnipotence complex; the Bullets have no flash/Maravcich, no skywalker/Thompson.
The Bullets have Charles Johnson beating a bigger man down low. It is not glamorous, but it wins games. The Bullets are a team in the perfect definition of word. They work together for a common goal. Elvin Hayes, once selfish, now shares center stage, smiling all the while, with Bobby Dandridge. Everyone has a job as designed by Motta, and everyone does that job, doing nothing less, which is important, but also doing nothing more, which is more important.
That is, the Bullets play within their limitations. Wes Unseld does not shoot from 17 feet unless the world is going to end in three seconds. Kevin Grevey leaves the ballhandling to Tom Henderson, who leaves the 25-footers to Grevey. No coaching job is more difficult than convincing players to do only what they can do. Motta has done it superbly.
Come Sunday or Tuesday, depending on the Houston-Atlanta miniseries, the Bullets will go into this season's playoffs. Though the world out there may still doubt the Bullets' validity, there are signs the local fans have awakened to the idea they have a special team here. Advance sales of playoff tickets are up 125 percent from last year, owner Abe Pollin says, and season attendance was up 15 percent to an all-time Bullet record of more than 12,400 a game.
But what, the world wants to know, about the playoffs? Will the Bullets go to Mars next? Will they win it all in 12 straight games? Will the whole happy season be a disaster if the Bullets lose in the playoffs?
"I just hope the team wants the playoffs as badly as i do", said Motta, who rubbed his hands together eagerly at the thought of the high-risk competition. "I think they do. You can tell in our workouts. When I mention playoffs the air is full of tension. They pay attention. There is direct eye contact."
The Bullets have injury problems. Unseld, Henderson, Dandridge, Grevey and Mitch Kupchak have sat out games in the last week. Motta says he does a bit on his pregame radio show in which he is Dr.Medic giving the Red Cross report. He laughs on the outside only.
"The injuries bother me some," Motta said. "But we've done all we can do. I think everybody is pretty healthy now. We've given them all time off. I'm most concerned about Grevey's hamstring and Mitch's back. But if they fall apart in this series, it won't be because we haven't done everything to get them ready. They are at the hospital for three treatments a day every day.
"I don't thing we're going to have any excuses.
"We have the same capabilities and same attitudes we had last year. Only we're a little bit better now."
And if the Bullets don't do it again? "Now if we lose, particularly early, we'll have a lousy summer," Motta said. "Not lousy because of external pressures put on us, but lousy because we won't be satisfied personally.We have to play to our potential to repeat."