The Atlanta Hawks would like basketball fans to believe they are a bunch of hustling, never-say-die players with little ability but lots of heart. That is just one of the myths that have been dispelled by the first five games of their playoff series with the Washington Bullets.
"I don't want to hear anyone claim again that they haven't got any players on that team," said Bullet Coach Dick Motta. "They aren't doing things against us with magic. It takes ability."
Going into tonight's sixth game in Atlanta (7:30, WDCA-TV-20), with the Bullets leading, 3-2, the series also has shown:
Washington's year-long struggle to gain the home-court advantage in the playoffs so far has proved meaning-less. The Bullets have won just once in three games at Capital Centre.
The Bullets' claim that they have the strongest bench and the best re-bounding in the league can be challenged, at least by Atlanta. The Hawks are outrebounding the Bullets and their reserves consistently have outplayed Washington's.
Atlanta may lack only experience, not more talented players, to challenge for the league championship in future years. Coach Hubie Brown talks about adding "more scoring" and "another superstar" but his team, when it plays as he instructs, is not that far below Washington's in ability right now.
Washington, not Atlanta, is faced with the most perplexing matchup problems entering the latter stages of this series. Although the Hawks have not been able to consistently handle Bob Dandridge or Elvin Hayes, the Bullets are searching now for ways to control reserves Tom McMillen and Terry Furlow and starting guard Eddie Johnson, all of whom have played well the last two games.
To show how even this series is, the Hawks can match the Bullets injury for injury. Wes Unseld (sore knee), Kevin Grevey (sore shoulder) and Bob Dandridge (sore groin) are ailing but will play tonight, as will Atlanta's John Drew (sore ankle), Wayne Rollins (sore knee), Johnson (sore knee) and Dan Roundfield (sore shoulder).
The addition of Roundfield off the free-agent list, the maturing of second-year guard Johnson and the mid-season acquisition of Furlow have raised the Hawks from last yearhs gut-it-out, low-wage club to a spot among the league's more gifted teams.
Brown's superior coaching, which he does with little tact and a lot of energy, has prodded the best from each of his players, whether talented or not. Just getting someone like Drew to even try on defense proves that. But the fear of feeling coach's wrath isn't the only reason athletes like Rollins, Roundfield, Steve Hawes and McMillen are matching the Bullets, for example, on the boards.
"They are young but they know how to play," said Dandridge. "They have talent on their bench and in their starting unit. They have shooters and they are quick and they play well together. But there are some players on that team that other clubs would like to have."
In two of the five games, the Hawks have outrebounded the Bullets by at least 10, something that rarely happened to Washington during the regular season. Just as telling has been Atlanta's superiority at the offensive end, which Motta says "is a measure of intensity."
Atlanta has come into every game trying to play to its peak. Washington has shown up twice ready to give a less than inspired performance. Both times, the Bullets decided to rely on their experience and a home crowd to win, and both times they lost.
"We lack the killer instinct, but that is nothing new," said Motta. "We just have to make things tough for ourselves.
Another Bullet put it more bluntly: "One of these days, we are going to cut it too close. We are going to lose a seventh game because of an injury or a cold performance and we'll have no one to blame but ourselves."
Atlanta is one of the few teams in the league that can match the Bullets' front-court size. And the Hawks have enough depth to allow each of their big men to go all out every second he is on the court. In contrast, Motta has been reluctant to use one of his regular-season stalwarts, Greg Ballard, very often in the series.
"I've got my theories as to why they are outrebounding us," said Motta."Like I've always said, Hubie figures he has 12 fouls to give at every position. If he only gets six or eight, he's in great shape. It's a plus.
"They've been aggressive in this series, but only one game (the fourth) have they gotten into the same kind of foul trouble as they usually did in the regular season. I mean, I can't understand how McMillen doesn't foul out of every game."
McMillen, who at 6-foot-11 plays like a stork possessed, has become a key figure in this series. He is the only player in the league who tries to front Hayes, and he has used that tactic with good success so far. Brown also employed him at small forward, a pivotal offensive position for the Hawks, Tuesday night and he was able to constantly get off his jumper against the smaller Dandridge.
The Bullets would like to run when McMillen and Rollins are in the game, but until they can control the rebounding that is impossible. As long as the Hawks can dictate the transition game, they can use their inside size to match power with Washington, especially when McMillen is at small forward.
Furlowhs long-range marksmanship has proved bothersome to Washington. He is overwhelming Charles Johnson on defense, which means either Grevey or Tom Henderson has to guard him. But if either gets into foul trouble, Motta is faced with matchup problems.
The Hawks are convinced their guards are so much better than Washington's that they will win the series. Motta, of course, sees it differently.
"When we show up and play intense basketball, like we did in Atlanta last weekend, we can win," he said. "But we have to play hard to bet this team. They are good and we better realize it before it's too late." CAPTION: Picture , Tom McMillen, who has given the Hawks a boost, dives over Larry Wright to corral a loose ball in fifth game of playoffs. By Richard Darcey-The Washington Post