There were so many top-flight guards in the National Basketball Association this season that one almost needed a pocket calculator to keep track of their exploits.
It was a guard, George Gervin of the San Antonio Spurs, who led the league in scoring for the third consecutive year, with a 33.1 average. It was also a guard, rookie Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers, who helped boost network television ratings by frequently passing the basketball through the eye of a needle.
But if there has been a more consistent guard so far in the NBA playoffs than Gus Williams of the Seattle Super-Sonics, he has yet to come down from the rafters. In fact, in the first four games of the Western Conference finals against Los Angeles, Gus scored 100 points, yet the Sonics trail in the best-of-seven series 3-1, with the fifth game here Wednesday night.
Williams, because of equal skills as either a playmaker or shooter, is really two people. Gus can have the kind of game (25 points, several steals, two or three key rebounds) that jump out at you from a box score. Or he can hammer his victims with intangibles so subtle that most fans will miss his magic completely.
"Williams is one of the coolest people under pressure that I have ever seen," Seattle Coach Lenny Wilkens said. "Gus seems to know instinctively when to shoot and when to give up the ball.
"He adjusts his game beautifully to whatever is happening on the floor and the way he reads opposing defenses is something you can't teach. Our offense is set up so that any of our guards [Williams, Dennis Johnson, or Fred Brown] can run it. But I'm never sorry when I look out on the floor and see that Gus has control of the basketball."
When Seattle defeated the Washington Bullets, 4 games to 1, in last year's championship playoff series, the starting back-court combination of Williams and Johnson scored 256 of the Sonics' 505 points.None of the Bullet guards were able to run with them, shoot with them, or ball-hawk with them.
"You know a lot of outsiders look at Gus Williams and think, 'Hey, there goes a guy without any feelings,'" said veteran Seattle forward Paul Silas. "To most people he doesn't know well, I suppose Gus would come off that way. But let me tell you something -- Williams is the guy who keeps us alive in the locker room with his chatter and his jokes.
"I don't know what it is about the man, but he never wants any publicity. I mean, I've seen dozens of newspapermen come up to Williams after he's had a big game and just get some polite words from Gus as he headed for the shower. But he's the guy who led us in scoring [22.1 average] during the regular season, and we've got some pretty good shooters on this club."
Out on the floor Williams has always been a team player. If Dennis Johnson scores more points, he doesn't care. If there are pictures in the paper the next day of Fred (Downtown) Brown shooting from some outrageous distance away from the basket, but making the hoop, he couldn't care less.
What makes Williams such a great shooter is his flexibility. He can put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket or he can mail it in from outside. But the move that almost always destroys defenders is his first quick step to the basket after getting the ball. He invariably leaves them nailed to the floor.
Questioned about his basketball philosophy and his thoughts during a game, Williams replied:
"Well, I don't try to play any particular way, and most of what I do is instinct. I react to situations that seem obvious to me -- like if the four guys on the floor with me are scoring a lot of points, then I try to give them the ball where they can do something with it.
"But if it happens to be one of those games when a couple of my teammates have lost their shooting rhythm and are missing, then I'm going to put the ball up more than I normally would."
The Lakers, in their quest to stop Williams, have tried to keep him from getting the ball. But despite their commanding lead in the series, they've stopped Gus about as often as the government halts inflation.