The Seattle SuperSonics had a disappointing start to the season, going 5–17 to begin with. Bob Hopkins, who replaced former Boston Celtics center Bill Russell as coach, was fired and Lenny Wilkens returned for a second tour of duty. The Sonics were led by center Jack Sikma, forwards Fred Brown, Paul Silas and John Johnson, and guards Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams. With Wilkens' experience being a key factor, the Sonics turned their season around, finishing with 47 wins and the fourth seed in the West. In the playoffs, they defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in a three-game miniseries, then upset the top-seeded and defending champion Portland Trail Blazers (who lost center Bill Walton in the second game of the series) in six games, before announcing their finals debut with a six-game win over the Denver Nuggets.
The Washington Bullets franchise made the Finals twice before in the 1970s, but were swept on both occasions, first by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971 when they were still in Baltimore, and then by the Cinderella Golden State Warriors in 1975. The Bullets kept some of the personnel from that 1975 team, including All-Stars Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes, but Dick Motta was now in his second year of coaching duty. The Bullets struggled with injuries during the season, but managed to finish with 44 wins, good for the third seed in the East. In the playoffs, the Bullets disposed the Atlanta Hawks in a two-game first round series, then ousted the San Antonio Spurs in six games, before making the finals again with a six-game win over the defending Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia 76ers.
Washington won the regular season series 3–1.
Bullets win series 4-3
The Bullets, behind Kevin Grevey's 27 and Elvin Hayes's 21 points, held a 19-point lead in the fourth quarter at the Seattle Center Coliseum. But, the Sonics staged a comeback in front of the home crowd, led by "instant offense" guard Fred Brown. Brown scored 16 points in the last nine minutes to finish with 32 and give the SuperSonics the win.
In an unusual 1-2-2-1-1 scheduling format, the next two games were played at the Capital Centre, the Bullets' home floor. Wes Unseld defended inside on Marvin Webster and Jack Sikma, pulled down 15 rebounds, and handed out five assists. This work enabled Bob Dandridge to score 34 points and Elvin Hayes 25 as the Bullets evened the series, winning their first NBA Finals game following nine consecutive losses.
Dennis Johnson was superb on defense, blocking seven shots and holding Kevin Grevey to 1-for-14 shooting. Paul Silas, the SuperSonics' veteran leader off the bench, helped shut down the Bullets' big men.
With 10 seconds remaining and the SuperSonics leading 93-90, Johnson's inbounds pass was stolen by Tom Henderson, who scored to make it 93-92 with five seconds left. Silas then stepped on the baseline trying to make the subsequent inbounds pass, turning the ball over to the Bullets. Bob Dandridge missed at the buzzer, however, and the SuperSonics picked up a victory on the road.
Game 4 was held in the Seattle Kingdome because the Seattle Center Coliseum was tied up with a mobile-home show. As a result, the Bullets had to contend with a then-record playoff crowd of over 39,000 fans.
The SuperSonics led by 15 with two minutes left in the third quarter. At this point, the Bullet guards, who had been victimized all series by Gus Williams and emerging star Dennis Johnson, started to assert themselves, especially reserves Charles Johnson and Larry Wright.
At the start of the final period, Dennis Johnson was elbowed hard in the ribs and left the game for a short time. With Charles Johnson, Wright, Mitch Kupchak and Bob Dandridge in the lineup, the Bullets stormed back and took a 103-101 lead with about 3½ minutes left in the game. Dennis Johnson then returned and went on a barrage, scoring first to tie the game, blocking a Dandridge shot, getting an offensive rebound, and pushing the Sonics to a 104-103 lead with a foul shot. Johnson would finish with 33 points, seven rebounds and three blocks.
Dandridge answered with a three-point play that returned the lead to Washington, 106-104. Seattle got the ball back and tied it with "instant offense" Fred Brown's jumper from "downtown". With two seconds left, Dandridge got a good shot in the lane, only to have Johnson block it, forcing overtime. But then, Charles Johnson became an instant hero by hitting three quick shots in overtime to give the Bullets a 120-116 win. The Bullets had tied the series at two wins apiece.
The SuperSonics returned to the Seattle Center Coliseum and eked out a close win. "Downtown" Freddie Brown had 26 points and Dennis Johnson 24 to carry Seattle to a 98-94 win and the series lead. The Bullets lost it at the line, making only 9 of 20 free throws in the second half. Even so, they cut Seattle's 11-point lead to two with less than two minutes to go before Jack Sikma hit three free throws down the stretch.
Game 6, in Washington, was all Bullets, 117-82. With the Washington backcourt continuing to struggle, Bullets coach Dick Motta inserted Greg Ballard at forward and moved Bob Dandridge to guard, a risky move considering Dandridge had played very little guard. Ballard and Dandridge produced a run that gave the Bullets a 12-point lead at the half. Washington scored 70 points in the second half, and the SuperSonics weren't up to that pace. Mitch Kupchak added 19 points, and Ballard had 12 points and 12 rebounds. The 35-point margin of victory was an NBA Finals record that stood until the 1998 NBA Finals Game 3 (96-54, 42 points).
Dennis Johnson, who before the 1977-78 playoffs was a relatively unknown guard from Pepperdine University, had grown into a star in this series in front of a national TV audience. However, DJ would miss every one of his 14 shots in this game. Fellow guard Gus Williams was a bit more accurate, shooting 4-for-12. SuperSonics big men Marvin Webster scored 27 points and Jack Sikma 21 to take up the slack, and that kept it close.
With 90 seconds left, Seattle whittled the lead from 11 points down to four, but Mitch Kupchak came up with a three-point play. Fred Brown, who finished with 21 points off the bench, hit a short jumper, then Paul Silas got a tip-in to cut it to 101-99. Silas then fouled Wes Unseld, a 55-percent shooter from the line during the playoffs. He hit two free throws, and moments later Washington sealed it with a Bob Dandridge dunk, 105-99.
Charles Johnson and Dandridge each scored 19 points for the Bullets, while Elvin Hayes fouled out with 12 points, a development that brought a couple of needling questions from the writers about his past failures in the playoffs. Unseld would be named Finals MVP.Washington Bullets
Nationwide TV coverage of the 1978 NBA finals was broadcast by CBS Sports, with Brent Musburger (All Games) on play-by-play and Rick Barry (All Games), Steve Jones (Game 1), recently retired John Havlicek (Games 2, 4 and 7), Gus Johnson (Game 3) and Keith Erickson (Games 4 and 5) on color commentary. Locally, the 1978 NBA Finals was broadcast by CBS affiliates: WTOP-TV in Washington, D.C. and KIRO-TV in Seattle, Washington.
Nationwide radio coverage of the 1978 NBA Finals was broadcast by Mutual, with Tony Roberts on play-by-play and Hubie Brown on color commentary.
The flagship stations of each station of each team carried their local play-by-play calls. In Washington, D.C., WTOP-AM carried the series, with Frank Herzog on play-by-play. In Seattle, KOMO–AM, carried the series with Bob Blackburn on play-by-play.
The NBA received much criticism over the fact that the seven-game series was stretched out over eighteen days, presumably for television; it remains the longest (in total number of days) playoff series ever played in any sport. (Even the 1989 World Series, interrupted for ten days by an earthquake, lasted only fifteen days.)
Both teams made it back to the finals the following season, with the Bullets holding home court advantage. That season the Bullets won 54 games while the Sonics won 52. The Bullets eliminated the Atlanta Hawks (4-3) and San Antonio Spurs (4-3) to advance while the Sonics eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers (4-1) and the Phoenix Suns (4-3). The Bullets appeared to have momentum with a Game 1 victory at the Capital Centre, but the Sonics took the next four games to win their only NBA championship.
The next time a road team won a Game 7 in the finals would be in 2016, when the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors at Oakland.