There were more than a few empty seats in Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium last Friday night, which was a little hard to understand considering that two of the three best teams in the NBA East—maybe in the entire league—were going at each other in a semifinal playoff series that was as close as a series could be. The game was on national television but blacked out locally, so that wasn't the reason for the no-shows, and neither was the weather, which was absolutely balmy for Buffalo. Long on the smarts but short on faith, the missing fans apparently had decided that they did not want to witness an execution, specifically of their Braves by the Washington Bullets. Sure, the Braves had won the first game, but in the next two the Bullets had chopped them up badly. And besides, the Braves hadn't won a single home game against the Bullets all year. So, knowing exactly what kind of a contest they would see, several thousand of the faithless elected to watch a rerun of Sanford and Son.
But the thing about Game Four in this bearpit of a series was that it was like the others only in that it was different. The first three had gone decisively one way or the other and had turned, more often than not, on what happened in the third quarter. Buffalo won the first game rather easily 113-102, but there was a suspicion, which was reinforced after the next two games, that Buffalo had caught the Bullets on an unusually bad night. How often, for instance, could a club as lacking in size as Buffalo limit Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes to just 16 rebounds between them? Unseld led the NBA in rebounding; Hayes was eighth.
But Unseld's rebounding championship had a price. In the final days of the season the burly 6'7" center played many more minutes than usual, and at last his damaged left knee rebelled. For the first time since it was operated on last summer, the knee had to be drained, and he was unable to work out the two days preceding the first game. On opening night he was operating at maybe 50% effectiveness.
The Bullets also had trouble with Buffalo's speed and tough defense. Elvin Hayes scored 20 points, a so-so night for him. And Phil Chenier, he of the picture-book jumper, who is deadly when right, was mostly wrong, hitting on only nine of 21 shots. Washington's third scorer, Mike Riordan, was in a scoring slump. But mostly Washington never got its offense untracked because the Braves' Randy Smith effectively closed off little Kevin Porter's penetration. Porter, driving and dealing off, led the NBA in assists, but he had just four in the game.
Controlling the boards, Buffalo's fast-break offense had Washington spinning. Bob McAdoo, the league's MVP, finished with 35 points, Gar Heard and Smith with 24 each.
"I haven't seen a team run by us like that all year," said K. C. Jones, the Washington coach. "We were absolutely terrible. The only sure way to keep McAdoo from going to the basket is to put a bomb in his car when we get to Buffalo."
Riordan was more reflective and, as it turned out, prophetic about how the series would go. "It's going to be like this," he said. "Each team will be trying to establish its game. Ours is boards, control and team defense. Theirs is running, forcing turnovers and McAdoo. Between the three teams—us, Boston and Buffalo—the pecking order hasn't been established. Any of the three could be the best. Like tonight. We had it in the first half, our game. Then Unseld got a little fatigued, and in the third quarter suddenly they spurted. At first it's subtle. They're a step quicker to the ball, we miss a couple of fast breaks. Soon they're running, getting loose balls, and they are beating us. Then we have to change things and we're playing even worse."
Out on the court, meanwhile, several thousand Washington fans had remained to watch Tony Roberts' postgame show on the Capital Centre's huge Telscreen. His guest was Smith, whose introduction drew a few boos.
"Well, Randy—a big game for the Braves," Roberts said. "The Bullets have lost only six games at home this year and three were to Buffalo."
"Yeah, well, we don't think Washington is such an unbeatable team," offered the 6'3" swiftie.