On This Date in Sports June 7, 1978: Bullets on Target

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

The Washington Bullets hit their mark and win their first NBA Championship beating the Seattle Supersonics 105-99 in Game 7 of the NBA Finals at the Seattle Center Coliseum. The key play comes late in the fourth quarter when NBA Finals MVP Wes Unseld hits a pair of clutch free throws, clinches the win in the final minute. The Bullets 44-38 mark in the regular season is the worst record ever by an NBA Champion.

The 1978 NBA Finals matchup between the Seattle Supersonics and Washington Bullets was perhaps the most unlikely in NBA history as it marked the first time in 20 years that neither team in the NBA Finals won 50 games, as both teams had to play an extra round, as they did not earn a first-round bye.

The Washington Bullets had been consistently one of the best teams in the 1970s but had nothing to show for it. They had made two trips into the NBA Finals, first as the Baltimore Bullets in 1971, losing four straight to the Milwaukee Bucks, and again in 1975 when the Golden State Warriors swept them after becoming the Washington Bullets. The Bullets, coached by Dick Motta in 1978, dealt with injuries throughout the season and finished third overall in the Eastern Conference with a record of 44-38. Playing in the preliminary round won two straight against the Atlanta Hawks to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals, where they stunned the San Antonio Spurs in six games. In the Conference Finals, the Bullets upset the heavily favored Philadelphia 76ers in six games. Philadelphia was the defending conference champions and expected to waltz their way through the series.

The Seattle Supersonics, meanwhile, began the season on the wrong foot, as first-year coach Bob Hopkins was fired after a 5-17 start after replacing Bill Russell. To replace Hopkins, Seattle hired Lenny Wilkins, a player-coach in the early years of the Supersonics. The move paid off as the Sonics completed a remarkable turnaround, finishing 47-35 to finish fourth in the Western Conference. The move proved that when it becomes obvious that a first-year manager is in over his head and helplessly lost, that a change can be made to salvage the season. In the preliminary round, the Sonics beat the Los Angeles Lakers 2-1, winning both games played in Seattle. In the conference semifinals, the Seattle Supersonics upset the defending NBA Champion Portland Trailblazers in six games. MVP Bill Walton suffered a season-ending injury in Game 2, which turned the series around. In the Western Conference Finals, the Supersonics beat the Denver Nuggets in six games, once again showing a strong edge on their home court.

In Game 1, of the NBA Finals, the Seattle Supersonics trailing most of the way rallied from down 19 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Washington Bullets 106-102 as Freddie Brown scored 16 of his game-high 30 points in the final nine minutes. Due to scheduling conflicts, the NBA Finals were played in a 1-2-2-1-1 format with Games 2 and 3 at the Cap Centre in Landover, Maryland. The Bullets would win their game at home by a score of 106-98 as Bob Dandridge led the way with 34 points. The Sonics were in control most of the way in Game 3, as Dennis Johnson played a spectacular game on defense with seven blocked shots. Washington made a late charge as Tom Henderson stole a pass from Johnson and hit a shot to make it 93-92 in favor of Seattle with ten seconds left. Paul Silas made things worse when he stepped on the line for the inbound pass. However, the Sonics held on as Dandridge’s shot at the buzzer was off the mark. Game 4 was moved to the Kingdome in Seattle due to a Mobile Home show at the Seattle Center Coliseum. The game would be an overtime thriller as the Bullets evened the series with a 120-116 win, as Charles Johnson hit several big shots in overtime, while Elvin Hayes had a monster game on the boards, with 13 rebounds. The series returned to the Sonics' usual home for Game 5, as Downtown Freddie Brown scored 26 points to help Seattle build an 11-point lead. However, the Bullets cut the deficit to two late in the game, before Jack Sikma iced the game at the free-throw line, putting the Sonics one win away from a championship with a 98-94 win. Back in Washington for Game 6, the Bullets shredded Seattle for a 117-82 win. The 35-point margin of victory was the largest in NBA history at the time. Game 7 back in Seattle looked to favor the Sonics, but Dennis Johnson, who had been of the best players all series, struggled, missing all 14 shots from the field. Seattle got a big game from Marvin Webster, who had a game-high 27 points, but it was not enough as the Bullets won 105-99 to win the NBA Championship. The Sonics did not go down without a fight as they cut an 11-point deficit to two points with 90 seconds left. However, Wes Unseld, a 55% free throw shooter, made both baskets to stem the Sonics comeback, as Mitch Kupchak added a big three-point play while c sealed the win with a dunk.

The two teams would meet again in the 1979 NBA Finals, but this time the Supersonics were victorious, winning in five games. Bob Hopkins, who quickly showed he had no idea what he was doing as a head coach, never got another chance in the NBA.