The Washington Bullets, who have turned this magnificent playoff series against Atlanta into basketball's version of Russian roulette, are hoping they haven't pushed their luck too far for today's climactic seventh game at Capital Centre.
After holding a 3-1 margin in this Eastern Conference semifinal, the Bullets are just one shot away from elimination in the scramble for a second NBA title.
The oddmakers like the Bullets' changes today. The spread is six points.
To survive the challenge of Atlanta's kamikaze troops, Washington deperately needs one of its outside gunners to come out smoking in the 3:45 p.m. contest, which will be watched by a boisterous sellout crowd and a national television audience (WDVM-TV-9).
The most likely candidate to fill this shooting void is veteran Charles Johnson, in a horrible slump (seven for 30) the entire series.
Although he has done little to warrant optimism in the Washington camp, Johnson came through in last year's playoffs every time his club started to stray off the winning path. Bullet coaches believe the odds eventually have to turn in his favor -- and they hope he begins rolling those winning numbers today.
"CJ hardly hit a shot until midway through last year's San Antonio series." Coach Dick Motta said. "Then he took off. I'll keep playing him. He's a streak shooter and a money player."
Johnson's entire game, especially his defense, picks up when he begins shooting well. And Washington could use as much solid back-court defense for this game as it can find, since the Hawks will rely on both starter Eddie Johnson and reserve Terry Furlow for a hefty chunk of their points.
"We have to have a third scorer." Motta said. "We can't just rely on Bobby (Dandridge) and Elvin (Hayes) to carry us. To win in basketball, you have to get points from three positions.
"Either CJ or Kevin (Greve) or Larry (Wright) has to have a good game for us. But I'll tell you this. I just feel fortunate to be in this game at all. We haven't played well and we could be eliminated by now. If you are going to have a seventh game, nothing could be better than to have it on your own nome floor."
It seems a shame this series has to end. What it has lacked in artistic play has been overcome by the sheer determination and intensity of the clubs. They have been like giant elk, repeatedly backing off and charging each other, the sound of their clashing bodies echoing throughout the arena.
Even if the Hawks lose, they have won the respect only magical teams can earn. Despite stacked odds in Washington's tavor, Atlanta has kept calm, followed the precise instructions of Coach Hubie Brown and fought back to extend the series further than most thought possible.
Today, they also have to take on history. Only two clubs in the league's 33 years have won a playoff after falling behind, 3-1. And to advance to the conference final, they have to beat the Bullets the third straight time and the third time overall at the Centre.
Washington players do not doubt Atlanta is capable of doing it.
Thoughout the series, the Hawks have shown they can match the Bullets inside power, their rebounding strength and their depth, while shooting much better from the perimeter.
In gifted forward Dan Roundfield and reserve center Tree Rollins, they have two imposing shol blockers who have intimidated just about every Bullet except Hayes, who leads the series with 23 blocks.
Brown has convinced them that to win, they must prevent Washington running. They have done that so well the last two games that the Bullets have had few fast breaks, a weapon that had worked effective for them all season.
Forced to use a set-up offense most of the time. Washington has shot horribly (.427 for the series) against the overplaying, scrambling Atlanta defense.
Hayes, a.48 percent shooter this season, is hitting 43 percent in six games, and Wes Unseld, third in the league with.57 percent, is 45 percent in the playoffs.
Even Motta admits his team has not functioned properly in the fact of Atlanta's relentless pursuit. Yet there still is a prevailing optimism in the Bullet camp.
"We've always been able to win the big game, the pressure game," Grevey said. "There was never a bigger presure game than last year's final at Seattle. I am just confident we are going to show up in this one 2nd play much better than we have.
"Hey, if they best us three in a row, what can we say? Do you realize what kind of feat that is?"
When they're playing poorly, the Bullets, who are averaging 14 points under their seasonal output, always look to Hayes for physical intimidation, to Dandridge for pressure points and to Unseld for leadership by example, especially on the offensive boards.
Unseld is handicapped by sore knees, although he refuses to admit it. Yet in game six, he asserted himself with his rebounding and strength and was carrying the tem until he fouled out early in the fourth period.
Dandridge, averaging 25 points for the series, has been content to blend into the offense since his dramatic 31-point performance in game four that appeared to have wrapped up the round for Washington. Motta wouldn't be surprised if his star forward again took charge of the Bullet attack today.
Hayes has patrolled the lane fere ciously while engaging in a constant running battle of words with officials. Motta would like him and his teammates to concentrate on the Hawks and forget the refs.
"I said from the beginning that this was going to be a long and hard series, but I don't think everyone believed me," Motta said. "It had all the markings of a seven-game series. i'd just like us to go out with our best shot. That's all you can ask for. The rest just falls into place." CAPTION: Bullets, Hawks are rough and intense, Picture 1, Dan Roundjield holds out Mitch Kupchak; Picture 2, Armond Hill grabs Larry Wright; Picture 3, Bob Dandridge plants leg firmly in Eddie Johnson's torso; Picture 4, Kupchak dives for loose ball; Picture 5, Wes Unseld and Terry Furlow flail arms; Picture 6, Elvin Hayes holds out Roundfield; Picture 7, Unself jaws at official, By Richard Darcey - The Washington Post