Nothing discombobulates us more than a little indecision, and right now the Bullets have made life all squirmy for the experts who (oh, maybe 10 minutes ago) were dead solid certain the Bullets were a nice team that would be lucky to beat the Nets. Hrrumph, hrrumph. Let's clear our throats and say this next clearly. These Bullets ain't done yet.
"We want Boston," the giddy customers at Capital Centre chanted near game's end last night, and if it doesn't make any sense to want to play a best-of-seven series with the best team in basketball, who cares? Even in the wonderful championship season of '78, the Bullets didn't excite the fans more than this outfit. The Celtics? The dreaded Celtics? Bring 'em on, there's magic in the air here.
You could tell that when Frank Johnson did the most amazing thing. He's a little guy in a giant's world, only 6 foot 2, a rookie guard who has turned the Bullets into a very good team. All he does is everything. Still, the 19,035 people at Capital Centre didn't expect him to slam dunk from 75 feet away.
Well, it looked like 75 feet. Here he came down the free throw lane with the score tied at 68. The little guy was in serious traffic when he left the floor, last touching the boards a step inside the free throw line. Up he went. And up some more.
Still rising, he collided with a large Net, James Bailey, who must have wondered where this eagle would land. He didn't land. Up Johnson went some more, reaching now with his right hand, the arm seeming to stretch, the way the astronauts do experiments with that 50-foot long robot's arm.
Now twisted sideways by bumping into Bailey, Johnson yet threw it down. Threw a slam dunk down from one step inside the free throw line. For a microsecond, the place was silent. Had they really seen this? From the assembled 19,035, there was a strange silence for a second while brains computed the information delivered by the eyes.
A teeny-tiny guard had slam-dunked? From a mile away? Over a fearsome shot blocker? With the score tied? In a playoff game that lots of folks figured was beyond this team's ability?
Yes to all that, and barely had Johnson crashed to earth (having forgotten to pack his parachute) before the Bullets' fans sent up a roar that may have been heard in Boston, where the mighty Celtics have been waiting for a designated victim from this playoff of the NBA's 10th and 11th-place teams.
Johnson bounced up and walked to the back of the key, only then realizing that, hey, that hurt to crash without a parachute. So as he went down on both knees, resting his forehead on the three-point stripe, Coach Gene Shue came out to make sure nothing was broken, after which he gave the kid a hug. First things first. Johnson's free throw (Bailey, the brute, fouled him) gave the Bullets a 71-68 lead they never lost.
After that, the Nets were chopped liver, if you want to slander liver, and barely 5 1/2 minutes later the Bullets owned an 11-point lead at 87-76. This time the magic came from Kevin Grevey, one of two Bullets who were around for the '78 championship season, who scored 10 points in a twinkling.
First he made a 15-footer, then one from 19, then from 15 (and a free throw) before striking from 25 for a three-pointer.
After each success, Grevey pumped his fist in the air in celebration, bringing down a waterfall of noise from the zealots ("Where've you all been?" he shouted to them, laughing on a postgame interview, knowing full well only zealots truly believed before now).
It was about here that an old fellow in a red coat held up a sign saying, "The Bullets Are Going to Be Champions, I Do Believe." The fellow is a season-ticket holder, David Register, 63, a counselor in a personnel office. He's the white-haired gentlemen who rises to scream at every officiating call against the Bullets.
"I love 'em," he said afterward, and he has reason, for these Bullets play with enthusiasm not often seen in the grind-it-out NBA. The Bullets come with two musclemen, Rick Mahorn and Jeff Ruland, who knock down buildings in their spare time. Greg Ballard can shoot; Johnson is a blur with purpose; if Spencer Haywood is Driftwood, it's time to pick up more; Grevey can beat anybody with a second to find the hoop, and they all work so persistently at defense that it drives opponents batty.
That is the only explanation for Ray Williams' locker-room quotes. After making six of 10 shots in the first half, the Nets' leading scorer made 4 of 18 in the second half. Of those 18 shots, maybe half were so ugly as to turn innocent witnesses to stone. There was a running left-handed hook shot from 12 feet, as well as an air-ball layup and a reverse left-handed layup that--truly, truly--hit the bottom of the backboard.
Said Williams afterward, apparently still in shock from the defensive work done on him: "My shooting got real cold . . . The second half, they just kept the ball out of my hands and made me give it up."
Give it up? With 18 shots, he gave it up?
And as Williams trudged off the floor, while Grevey bounced around like a kid, the old fellow David Register held up his sign again. Only this time he turned it around, and on the other side the sign said, "The Bullets Will Be Champs--Yes, Yes."