The Washington Bullets need one more herculean effort from their veteran front-court players Wednesday night to avoid seeing their dreams of another NBA title gunned down by the San Antonio Spurs.
After all the talk about the Bullets' poor-shooting guards and the fine shooting of the Spurs' George Gervin is over, the outcome of this Eastern Conference championship series still comes down to whether Elvin Hayes, Bobby Dandridge and Wes Unseld can once again save their team from an early playoff exit, as they did in the seventh game against Atlanta two weeks ago.
Although this is just the sixth game of the round, the 8:30 p.m. contest (WDCA-TV-20) will have the intensity of a championship confrontation. The Bullets' front line always has functioned best in that kind of atmosphere.
The Spurs, four-point favorites, know if they stumble the momentum of the series, which they lead, 3-2, will swing to Washington for the final game Friday night in Capital Centre.
"We still have a chance up there," Spur Coach Doug Moe said, "but I'm 100 percent sure if we win this one, the last game won't be necessary. We don't need to look beyond this one to Friday."
Washington Coach Dick Motta is hoping the Spurs' playoff history will haunt them. San Antonio has struggled in pressure playoff games.
In the seventh contest of the semifinal series against Philadelphia, for example, Moe's club barely held on at home to win, with center Mike Green and reserve Louis Dampier - not Gervin, Larry Kenon or James Silas - scoring the important baskets.
Of course, Motta also thought the Bullets would win at least one game here last week. Instead, they lost twice to bring their playoff road record to 2-3 (they are 4-3 at home). Neither loss in San Antonio was memorable. They were behind by 14 points in the first and were blown out in the second.
Hayes, hindered by an injury to the middle finger of his shooting hand did not play well in the first loss and Dandridge scored only six points in the second. Unseld rebounded effectively in both, but his scoring was held down drastically by the increasingly aggressive Spurs.
Moe claims it has been the Spur defense against Dandridge, limiting him to an average of 17 points and 44 percent shooting, that has swung this playoff to his team.
"He is the key to their club," he said. "We haven't let him get loose. They might think we are going to stop double-teaming him and worry about their guards cutting to the basket, but that's crazy.
"Why give up what is working? That worked for them one game (on Sunday). I'm more worried about him."
Dandridge has only made eight of 25 shots in the past two games, but he has contributed 15 assists while looking for Tom Henderson cutting to the basket, unguarded by any Spur.
"That's what we have to continue to do," Dandridge said. "That play is there, and as long as they give it to us, we have to take advantage of it.
"Coming back from being down 3-1 is a struggle. It can be done, but it isn't easy. We just have to go out and play good basketball. We can't let them get on top of us like they have been and control the tempo. We have to be aggressive and we have to get scoring from everyone.
"That's what made the last win (Sunday) so good. Everyone contributed. That's the way we play when we are doing well."
The Spurs would like nothing better than to have Dandridge and Hayes pass up shots and feed Henderson and Kevin Grevey. They say they'll take their chances getting beat that way instead of having the forwards take higher percentage shots.
Hayes, shooting 40 percent in the series, needs to duplicate his 24-point, 22-rebound effort of the fifth game. His rebounding is especially important, even mor e than his points. The Spurs have won every time his rebound total has been down in this round.
But since the third game, he has played with more intensity.He was particularly effective down the stretch Sunday, scoring seven points in six minutes and intimidating the Spurs underneath.
Unseld began the series as the villain in the eyes of Moe, who thought the veteran center was shoving around his lads without being hindered by appropriate foul calls.So the Spurs started shoving back, and games have become much more physical.
The Bullets believe their rivals are giving up something inside by concentrating so much on Unseld. Anytime a Washington guard cuts to the basket, the San Antonio center is afraid to help out in fear that Unseld will be left alone on the weak side to rebound at will.
"We've got them either way," Motta said. "If they adjust, Wes will kill them. If they don't, we have a layup. We just have to keep cutting and keep passing to make sure we get the open shots."
If the Bullet front court players stumble, that should leave the way open for Gervin, Silas and Mike Gale to take over the game in the back court.
Gervin will try to get untracked early, before Motta is willing to cover him with Dandridge. Although many feel the Bullets' best lineup right now has Dandridge at guard and Greg Ballard at forward, Motta steadfastly replies such a lineup "would prevent us from having any front-court reserves - plus it's a gimmick, and you don't win with gimmicks."
Moe even has chastised Motta and the Bullets for waiting until the fifth game to start overplaying Gervin and trying to prevent him from driving the middle.
"They were stupid not to double Gervin early," Moe said. "That let us get an advantage in this series.
"What is really cracking me up," he said, "is there is not a person in the country that thought we would win this series in six games. We'rejust thrilled to be in this position.
"If we can't win from this position, we don't deserve to win the series."
Motta said the Bullete are fortunate "to be still alive at this time." He said the same thing before the seventh game against Atlanta, and his club responded with a narrow triumph.