SI Vault
Curry Kirkpatrick
May 07, 1979
Amazing Atlanta took the defending NBA champion Bullets to seven stirring games in the Eastern Conference semifinals, then the Big E and Bobby D made the Hawks' feathers fly
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May 07, 1979

Alive, But Just Barely

Amazing Atlanta took the defending NBA champion Bullets to seven stirring games in the Eastern Conference semifinals, then the Big E and Bobby D made the Hawks' feathers fly

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The first warning came in the playoffs of 1978 when the Hawks roughed up Washington more than a little bit before losing in their mini-series. Then the teams split four games this season with both winning once on the other's court, and never was the margin larger than four points. While the Bullets rested for a week after the season with a bye, thanks to having the NBA's best record, the Hawks took apart Houston's high-powered offense, holding the Rockets 15 points below their scoring average.

Still, when the Atlanta-Washington series opened two weeks ago on national television, the Hawks were something of a mystery, in part because that was the first time CBS had seen fit to feature the team in Brown's three seasons as coach.

In light of this inattention and Atlanta owner Ted Turner's meager payroll, the fabrication has spread that the team is nothing but a collection of unskilled migrants who gladly suffer Brown's bellowing tutelage rather than be cast aside to peddle peanuts on the Georgia highways. Nothing could be further from the truth. No talent? Power Forward Dan Roundfield, shot blocker Tree Rollins and Defensive Guard Eddie Johnson are among the best in the league at their specialties. No scoring? Drew and Furlow are exquisite one-on-one operators. Mindless sycophants? Armond Hill is Princeton. Tom McMillen, for Godsakes, is Oxford.

"Talent is all relative in the NBA," says McMillen. "What we have achieved is more talent per player than anybody. This is because Hubie breaks down our inertia and drives it out of us."

The Hawks didn't contain Washington too well in the opener, losing 103-89, but in Game 2 they embarrassed the Bullets 107-99 in Landover to tie up the series. Back home they lost a slowed-down 89-77; then, toward the end of Game 4, it appeared the Hawks would deadlock the series again when they controlled the ball with seven seconds left and the score tied at 109. But, inexplicably, Johnson held the ball over his head for three seconds and then dribbled for three more. By the time he finally passed to McMillen in the corner, the Rhodes scholar was completely open, but the horn had sounded and the game had escaped into an overtime, from which the Bullets emerged with a 120-118 victory.

At this pause in the proceedings, the Bullets had a stranglehold lead of three games to one and were all set to sew it up on their home court. Dandridge had scored 112 points so easily over the helpless Drew that, Brown said, "Pick is playing H-O-R-S-E with himself." Hayes and Wes Unseld were having their own way amid the ferocious banging underneath the baskets. But the funny thing was that everybody from Capitol Hill to Peachtree Street knew the series was far from over.

In truth, the teams were as close as this: the score had been virtually tied with six minutes to go in all four games. Only the Bullets' ability down the stretch—the combined fourth-quarter scores totaled 112-87 for Washington—had enabled them to bail out of deep water.

So now came the sniping—a practice that was de rigueur in the playoffs long before Furlow contracted Muhammad Ali Mouth.

Bullet Guard Tom Henderson, a former Hawk whom Brown got rid of 2� years ago, accused the Atlanta coach of blowing Game 4 by confusing Johnson and causing him to freeze. "Sure, Johnson should have shot," Henderson said. "But the man has been yelling at him and yanking him in and out of games all season."

Brown refused to publicly acknowledge Henderson's remarks beyond pointing out that his team knew whom to foul ( Henderson) near the end of the overtime and who would miss ( Henderson) at least one of two clinching free throws (which he did) to give the Hawks another chance to tie the game (which they didn't).

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