To many of us, the Bullets are two games away from the largest wrecking ball in the history of team sports. But if they are old and out of sorts with each other, why was Billy Cunningham breaking every speed law known to man to scout them Sunday?
If the 76ers are not quite quaking in their sneakers about the Bullets' challenge in the NBA playoffs that begin tonight in Philadelphia, the concern is more than they publicly admit. They realize the Bullets have enough ability and pride, though often not in the same bodies, to embarrass them in a three-game series.
Philadelphia should win, if everybody plays and everybody also plays to their season-long form. For the first time since she began tugging on Bullet uniforms, the fat lady will sing after Act I of this athletic opera.
It will be a sad, sad song.
Unless fate or Elvin Hayes intervenes. Given the proper circumstances -- and he might just be in the ideal frame of mind -- Hayes can destroy even teams with Darryl Dawkins on them all by himself.
That is one reason Coach Cunningham left after the 76ers' home victory over Boston Sunday and arrived by halftime of the Bullets' victory over the Nets in Piscataway. He wanted one last look at this bomb. Is it a dud? Or capable of the sort of explosion that would incite the Phickle Philly Phans to riot?
We should know shortly after such as Ron Behagen and John Williamson enter the game sometime in the second quarter. In a five-man game, the Bullets can beat anyone in the NBA. In an 11-man game, the Bullets belong in the Southwest Conference.
At this instant, Behagen must be angry -- but also pleased with his judgment. He sensed a blind-side pick like that was in order not long after our introduction and an inquiry about a rumor that has followed him for nearly four years.
One of the juiciest NBA stories -- verified by a former teammate who insists he was present at the time -- is the one about the meeting between Coach Hubie Brown and his new player when Behagen was awarded to the Hawks as partial compensation for Truck Robinson signing with New Orleans in 1977.
Upon Behagen's arrival, the volatile Brown is supposed to have said: "I just want you to know I hate your guts." It seemed the worst beginning to a coach-player relationship ever. Was it true?
Behagen admits: "I knew I wasn't wanted before I arrived. That had a lot to do with how my career went, getting that 'journeyman' tag and all. Before that I'd played for two teams in five years."
For much of his basketball life, Behagen has been chased by his past, the infamous incident with Luke Witte during the Ohio State game his senior year at the University of Minnesota and being shuttled to three teams within three months in the fall of '77.
Behagen was awarded to Atlanta in early October, traded to Houston Dec. 16 and then traded to Atlanta six days later. In the two years since, he has been let go by four other teams. It is little wonder he pleads: "Now don't go around stirring up trouble.
"I do what they tell me. I get a man, I work to stop him."
Williamson is a serious liability. He is instant offense, very frequently for the opposition. Unless, he scores a jillion points in a hurry, his acquisition for Roger Phegley was sinful.
Apparently, Williamson still yearns to be a Net. Incorrectly, he thought if he gained an enormous amount of weight the Nets would yield to his contract demands. Bullet officials sense he might purposely be playing badly, taking the worst shots imaginable and scarcely staying in the same zip code with his man on defense, hoping to be sent back to the Nets.
In truth, Williamson is playing himself toward oblivion.
Dave Corzine is a splendid practice player and sets some of the best picks seen anywhere in the NBA this side of Wes Unseld. But the pressure of having to play like a Hall of Famer in the two minutes he replaces Unseld often makes him appear a spastic.
"He plays with too much urgency," Coach Dick Motta said.
Could he be expected to play otherwise?
Larry Wright might get unleashed against the 76ers after hustling his way out of Motta's doghouse Sunday against the Nets. And Lawrence Boston, hard as he tries, hardly inspires confidence against either of the Philadelphia forward reserves, Steve Mix or Bobby Jones.
Which is why Unseld says: "The starting five has got to play real well. And we need a lift, something from somebody on the bench."
As Cunningham surely noticed, the prsent Bullets take the highest-risk shots of any team beyond the jucos. Greg Ballard also takes loads of Hayes-like turnaround jumpers with only an instant to focus on the basket.
Kevin Porter has nearly as many jacknife moves as the guard he replaced, Tom Henderson. Like Henderson's, Porter's average degree of difficulty is greater than his scoring average. But he makes Hayes happy -- and that is more than justification for his playing.
"Jim Cleamons is almost too smart to play with some of these guys," a Bullet insider sniffed.
Lately, one of the worst percentage shots in the sport, the three-pointer, has been carrying the Bullets. Kevin Grevey recently has been better from 23-foot range than many guards have been from the 15-foot perimeter.
"Teams can't zone up on our inside guys, like they've done in past playoffs," Grevey said. "Right now I feel I have the best range in the NBA."
He also knows when enough is enough, the proper time to stop throwing missiles and move closer for two-point grenades. "I miss two or three in a row my teammates'll let me know. They won't look for me. But I don't think I've missed two in a row for some time."