Backs to the wall, indeed. The Bullets say they play best with their backs to the wall. That is an image of trapped men. Men with their backs to the wall often are waiting for killing bullets to arrive. These Bullets were against that wall last night. The killing bullets were in flight. A heartbeat away, the end.
But no. Not Yet. These Bullets dodged those bullets. The San Antonio Spurs, guns smoking, were the victims instead. With their backs to the wall, the Bullets did astonishing things, things that win world championships, things that only the very best teams with the very strongest wills ever do.
Bobby Dandridge did it at both ends of the floor. He made the basket that earned a 103-all tie, he made a 15-footer with eight seconds left to win it, and on defense he kept the ball away from George Gervin enough to render the Spurs impotent when it mattered most.
Dandridge had help. If Elvin Hayes took only three shots in the second half, he yet was awesome under the boards. At 103-all, Gervin thought to put up an eight-foot running jumper. Dandridge forced him left and then Hayes, going approximately 26 1/2 feet into the air, forced Gervin to flip a hopeless shot at the glass. It banged off the rim with a clang.
That set up two free throws for Greg Ballard, giving the Bullets their first lead since midway in the third quarter. When James Silas made a 15-footer to tie it at 105-all, the Bullets called a time-out with 25 seconds left.
The capacity crowd of 19,035 did its duty. "Bullets . . . Bull-ets . . . Bull-ets" came the ear-ringing chant, and the moment of high drama was at hand. The Spurs had fired their execution shots.On the Bullets' home floor two weeks ago the Spurs had beaten the world champions. After losing Game 6 in San Antonio, the Spurs figured to be beaten badly here. Choking sounds were heard in Texas during Game 6.
Not tonight. If we believe shooting percentages are a measure of stress under pressure, the Bullets were the fellows who had a hard time swallowing last night They shot only 35 percent the first half, only 41 for the game.
Nothing seemed to help the Bullets. The old football mentor, George Allen, who used to coach another team in town, condoned fights as a way to inspire the troops. The Bullets started a brawl in the third quarter, the highlights of which were Hayes dumping someone on the floor and Wes Unseld shoving half the Spurs back to the Alamo.
But the Bullets were unmoved. They still payed fitfully. Loyalist worried: Unseld four times let loose balls slide through his steel-trap hands . . . Hayes wasn't shooting . . . No one could stop Gervin, who scored 34 points in the second and third quarters.
Anyway, with 25 seconds to play, the Bullets called time out.
The coach, Dick Motta, would earn his money here.
The Bullets' public relations man, Marc Pray, shooed away a TV cameraman who wanted to put his camera into the Bullets' huddle. Motta doesn't like TV cameras there because his predecessor, K. C. Jones, once came off on national televison as a coach without a plan.
With 25 seconds, what would Motta do?
He did the smartest thing any coach could do.
He gave the ball to Bobby Dandridge, as beautiful under pressure as he is in 20-point romps.
"There was no play," Motta said, reconstructing his huddle chatter. "It was just bullfeathers (or something like that). I just told Bobby to go out there and win the damn game. He felt it. He has that right. We just told the other guys to get the hell out of the way."
Motta earned his pay.
So did Dandridge, who after 15 seconds out-front-he was playing guard, a strange position-dribbled quickly to the right baseline.
Three Spurs moved at him. Bbut as Dandridge went up for a 15-foot jumper, the Spurs did not go up with him. They fell away. It was losers' defense, the kind of defense that does not beat the world champions.
Dandridge's shot hit the bottom of the net as the hero sailed on out of bounds.
And Dandridge wasn't done yet. Silas put up the Spurs' last shot, an eight-footer. Hayes, rising about 36 1/2 feet high this time, blocked it. When Larry Kenon of the Spurs picked up the loose ball, still with time to put up another shot, here came Dandridge to knock it out of his hands.
At game's end, Dandridge did a mid-air dance of joy. In Game 7 against the Atlanta Hawks two weeks ago, when the Bullets first had their backs to the wall, Hayes scored 39 points and Dandridge 29, with 17 coming in the last quarter. In last night's last quarter, Dandridge had 13 of his 37. Hayes had 25 in the game.
Add up those numbers. In two Game 7s, Dandridge and Hayes now have scored 130 points-Dandridge averaging 33, Hayes 32.
This is how they have pulled the Bullets out of harm's way in the fourth quarter of Game 7s: The Spurs led 94-87 with 5 1/2 minutes to play when Larry Kenon, a 6-9 leaper, went up for a layup against Hayes. Hayes blocked it. The ball fell back to Kenon, whose second layup try also was blocked by Hayes.
Then, on the offensive end, Dandridge worked mightily for a short jumper that was blocked by a Spur. Hayes grabbed the rebound and shoved aside a Spur to score. Where the Bullets might have trailed by nine, instead they were only five down-all because Hayes, whose reputation once was tarnished by a choker's label, would not quit when quitting was available.
These ears hurt? On Dandridge's tying shot that made it 103-all, the Cap Centre crowd did its impression of an H-bomb. On Dandridge's winner, it really got loud. Forty-five minutes after the game a couple thousand of those crazies who never leave a good party until 3 a.m. were still romping on the court, screaming "Dee-fense . . . Dee-fense."
"Now I know what Lombardi meant," said the Bullets' brain, Motta. He alluded to Vince Lombardi, the football brain who once coached a team in this town after making the Green Bay Packers the symbol of enduring success.
"To get there is one thing," Motta said. "To stay here is tougher."
To stay on top when everyone is gunning at you takes a special skill and will. Motta has demonstrated both-his use of Dandridge at guard with Ballard at forward may have turned the series-and so have the guys, in red, white and blue short pants. CAPTION: Picture 1, Bobby Dandridge lets fly with the winning shot for the Bullets with eight seconds left in seventh playoff game. By Richard Darcey-The Washington Post; Picture 2, Elvin Hayes swats away James' Silas' waning-moments shot to save Bullets' two-point victory over Spurs. Photos by Richard Darcey-The Washington Post