Really, now, how better to describe the NBA's late, and in some ways lamentable, regular season than to say it featured the 11th commandment of Moses Malone—Thou shalt not steal my rebound—the Looking for Mr. Good Bird, the emergence of Dave Cowens as a "coach" and Lloyd Free as a "star." Also, the Richie Powers Memorial Double-header, the Bob McAdoo pack-up-your-troubles-in-your-old-kit-bag show and the New York Knicks and New Orleans Jazz sleepwalking festival.
Obladi. Oblada. In professional basketball, life goes on.
And on. And on. And so, now, the playoffs. Certainly there are enough candidates for the finals from the East and West to satisfy all tastes. For aficionados of team play, joie de vivre, hustle and 48-minute effort, there are the Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets and Kansas City Kings. For those who are of the star-wars and lonely-rich-guy persuasion, there are the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets. If one prefers to avoid watching defense at all costs, there are the San Antonio Spurs. And how about primal scream therapy? The NBA presents in living, screaming color the New Jersey Nets and Kevin ("They're out to get me") Loughery. The finalists will not be known, of course, until Brent Musberger opens the envelope, one hopes, sometime before August. But, alas, most of the signs point away from these teams and back toward the replay of last year's championship series between the Washington Bullets and the Seattle SuperSonics.
Were it not for the fact that no team since the Bill Russell Celtics of 10 years ago has won back-to-back championships, the Bullets would be overwhelming favorites to repeat, despite losing their last three games. History aside, they should win it all again—and this time more easily, defeating, say, Atlanta in five, Philly in six and Seattle in five—simply because they are the strongest, deepest, most confident, most adaptable and best team in the NBA. "To win twice, you have to be really mean to do that," says Indiana Coach Bob Leonard. Oh, yes. The Bullets may be the meanest team in the NBA as well.
The experience of winning the title in 1978 on the road ( Washington overcame the home-court advantages of San Antonio, Philadelphia and, in the seventh and final game, Seattle) has sustained the club through this season, in which the Bullets were one of only two teams (the other was Seattle, 21-20) to have a winning record (23-18) away from home. When Golden State Guard John Lucas speaks of Washington as having the "smartest front line in the game," he is referring not only to Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld and Bob Dandridge, all of whom put together marvelous seasons, but also to reserves Mitch Kupchak and Greg Ballard, whose enthusiasm, passing and offensive rebounding would make them starters, not to mention stars, in most other cities.
Coach Dick Motta's offense is designed for playmaker Tom Henderson to pound the ball inside, where Hayes is automatic on the turnaround jumper and Dandridge administers more one-on-one "facials" than anyone since Helena Rubenstein. In the Bullet system, the 31-year-old small forward known as "Pick," who seems to sleep through half the games, has become the NBA's most complete player. When aroused, Dandridge shoots, passes, defends and rebounds, and in last year's playoffs he even played some guard.
Elsewhere in the backcourt is shooter Kevin Grevey or whippets Charley Johnson and Larry Wright, or even rejuvenated former All-Star Phil Chenier. Motta says he has nine starters, but somewhere in this plethora of talent the coach has lost count.
Nagging injuries to Kupchak and Grevey may be cause for concern, but of more significance is the Bullets' record (7-5) against three of their possible Eastern rivals: Central Division winner San Antonio, which has never won a game at the Capitol Centre in Landover, Md.; Houston, whose Malone gets gang-attacked and beat upon something awful by the Washington musclemen; and Atlanta, which Dandridge takes apart all by himself.
The survivor of the Atlanta-Houston opening-round mini-series will meet the Bullets, but by that time the magnificent runaway MVP, Malone, may be too exhausted to stand upright after the grabbing, clawing Hawks get through with him. As for the Hawks—in particular, John Drew and Tree Rollins, who are even money to foul out of a H-O-R-S-E game—they may be rendered deaf from the frequent, bellowing harangues of Coach Hubie Brown, who takes a backseat to no one (not even Loughery) in anguished noisemaking.
In reality, only the Atlantic Division runner-up 76ers appear to be a threat to the Bullets before the championship round. This assumes that destiny's fallen darlings, from Dr. Julius Erving on down to Darryl Dawkins, play well in the mini-series against their old doubleheader buddies, the Nets (surely you recall the New Jersey- Philadelphia game, which had to be replayed in part because of Powers' handing out two too many technical fouls), then defeat their running, gunning mirror images, the Spurs, in the following round.