It was gulp time all over the NBA yesterday, those special moments that allow us to see who does what under pressure. In Oakland, there was a brawl. In Philadelphia, John Havlicek threw a dreadful pass that allowed the 76ers a chance to win, but Julius Erving missed two straight free throws.
Inside Capital Centre, the Bullets were in familiar dilemma against the Cleveland Cavaliers, watching a 17-point lead dwindle to zero with 3 1/2 minutes left. All sorts of dreaded images leaped to mind - dissension, firings, speculation about who this year's Kevin Porter and K.C. Jones would be.
And then the Bullets said enough. Elvin Hayes said it by flicking away a Campy Russell layup. Kevin Grevey said it with a fine lead pass. Wes Unseld said it by keeping the ball alive two critical times, Phil Chenier said it by grabbing one of those saves and Tom Henderson said it with eight of the game's final 10 points that matered.
Simply, the Bullets got by their first playoff test with more than a two-man show. And that is their only chance against the next hurdle. As evidence, Hayes and Chenier shot worse yesterday than against the Cavaliers in Cleveland - and Washington won.
Before the game, the two Bullets looking inward were Grevey and Henderson. Grevey elaborated.
"In the NBA," he said, "you don't dwell. You try not to get too low after a bad game and you try not to get too high after a good one. But Friday night was one of the worst games of my life. No points, no rebounds, no assists. Nothing."
Yesterday Grevey was four for seven from the field and six for seven on free throws, plus three rebounds and an assist. And Henderson traded whatever had him bound to the floor in Cleveland for wings yesterday.
The difference between Cleveland Friday and the Capital Centre yesterday is best measured by several plays - and the three-game enigma known as Austin Carr.
Henderson set the tone after grabbing the opening tip by gliding past a defender and hitting an open layup. Later, he left his feet about the District line on another drive, twisted between Foots Walker and Jim Brewer and laid in another shot.
The surest sign the Bullets are going well is Henderson goiing well, because for that to happen others must be involved in the game. And Henderson got Grevey involved after a wonderful outlet pass from Unseld with six minutes left in the first period.
With a two-on-one break, Henderson slipped the ball to Grevey, who had his mind set on an unmolested dunk - until his legs said otherwise. Grevey suddenly was sputtering in midflight, like the pilot that tried to soar out of Memorial Stadium in the NFL playoffs but landed in the cheap seats.
There is no worse humiliation in basketball than missing a dunk and Grevey was saved - but barely - because the ball bounded about the rim and finally dropped through the basket.
"But the reason I'm in there is not necessarily to score," he said later. "We've got enough scorers and ball-handlers. What I'm supposed to do is come up with the loose balls and play defense. With me, it's the little things that count."
One of the little things that added up to Bullet joy was poor Carr's series-long feud with his jump shot. He entered the affair yesterday 8-for-28 from the field and then missed 8 of his 11 shots, including an unguarded layup.
So the Bullets' accomplishment, beating a team with Jim Cleamons and Nate Thurmond absent with injuries and its best shooter in a slump, hardly was overhelming. It was something, in truth, the players were kicking themselves for not doing two days earlier.
Dick Motta was aware, the Bullets could have botched yesterday's game also.
"But they reached down and grabbed something special," he said. "That's interesting for us. That showed me something." Whether it's still there is one of the reasons they hold playoffs, although a minor one."
As Motta was talking with reporters, the Celtics and 76ers were doing battle on a nearby television. The Bullets had permitted themselves their first smile of the afternoon with 31 seconds left against the Cavaliers. Now they were intent over a game that might determine a future playoff opponent.
After Havlicek and Erving, and one or two others, had chances to decide the game in the final moments, Jo Jo White grabbed the hero's mantle with a winning jumper at the buzzer. And the Washington faithful was overjoyed. The Bullets can beat the Celtics, if they get that far.