Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
One of Santa's elves worked overtime last night at Capital Center. But before he could gift wrap a victory for Atlanta, he ran out of Christmas magic.
Charlie Criss, at 5-foot-8 the NBA's smallest player, dashed and pranced among the giants and made believers of the Bullets and 8,358 fans by scoring 19 points in the first half. When he got just three more in the second, Washington was able to pull out a 100-93 victory.
Criss had 17 points in the second quarter when the Hawks surged to the 54-45 lead they held at intermission. Then the Bullets huddled at halftime to find a way to stop the 28-year-old upstart rookie who spent five years bouncing around the Eastern Basketball League.
"I've heard about him and seen stuff on him but you become a believer once you watch him," said Bullet coach Dick Motta. "We knew what we wanted to do on him, but we weren't doing it. So we emphasized it again at half."
What the Bullets did was force Criss to the baseline instead of letting him roam freely in the middle of the key. If he escaped his defender and got underneath in the second half, there was plenty of help available to shut him down.
Once the Bullets shut down Criss, it became a matter of time before they wore down the rest of the Hawks, who were missing leading scorer John Drew, out with the flu.
Although Hawk coach Hubie Brown charged that the officials "stole the game" from his team by not calling any charging fouls on the Bullets in the fourth quarter, the Washington victory was due more to the Bullet superiority inside.
With Bob Dandridge working effectively one on one and Wes Unseld Picking up loose balls and playing aggressive defense, the Bullets were able to pick up high percentage baskets in the final minutes while the Hawks were relying heavily on outside shooting.
Dandridge, who had six points on three for 10 shooting in the first half, was the key figure in the final Bullet surge that locked up the game.
With Washington ahead, 90-89, Elvin Hayes put in a rebound of his shot. Dandridge worked for a foul and made two free throws. Dandridge again was able to go one on one, this time scoring on a driving layup. He then finished with an eight-footer for a 98-89 margin.
Dandridge scored 24 points, one more than guard Phil Chenier, who had 16 at the half in his second start of the season.
"They (the Bullets) needed all the help they could get," Brown said of the officiating in the game, which broke a three-game Washington losing streak and kept them even with Cleveland in the Central Division race. "You are supposed to accept it in this league and say that's basketball, but I can't."
Brown probably can be excused for complaining since he has the toughest coaching job in the league. He is trying to get the NBA's lowest-paid club to perform with the likes of the Bullets, a much more talented outfit, and it takes patience and a hard night's work on the bench.
But the Hawks gained Washington's respect for tonight's 8 o'clock rematch in Atlanta.
"It's hard to be pretty against them," said Motta. "They hustle and they can take you out of your patterns. I can see why they are doing as well as they are.
"We had to earn this victory. They played awfully hard. You don't play many teams that play like that the whole game."
Nor do you see many teams with a guy like Criss, who was the Eastern League's leading scorer last year. If left open, he can put in points like anyone a foot taller, something the Bullets found out the hard way.
"In this league, when you are open, you better stick the ball in," said Larry Wright, who guarded Criss for part of the second quarter. "They ran a lot to plays for him in the first half and he made them work. In the second, we were hip to what they were doing and we made him work a lot harder. Hey, but he can play."
Tom Henderson guarded Criss in the second half. Criss missed all seven of his shots after intermission (he was eight for 11 in the first half) and was barely hitting the rim by the end of the game.
"He's a Calvin Murphy type, explosive but smaller," said Henderson. "I wanted to get him away from the middle and into the baseline so he couldn't move as well. He'll kill you if you let him shot out front like he was."
Criss demonstrated that fact during the second quarter when he scored nine straight Atlanta points help erase an eight-point Bullet bulge. He hit from the outside, on drives and from the foul line while Washington seemed unable to hinder him," said Motta.
"But like Larry Wright said at the half, once you play him, the next time you have a pattern on him. Then you can be more effective against him."
Criss saw it a little differently.
"They got a little more physical with me in a second half," he said. "I wound up on the floor a lot. But that is what they are trying to do to me in this league, rough me up. It's just something I've got to get used to."