Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
The Bullets survived injuries to starter Tim Henderson and Elvin Hayes and the ejection of Mitch Kupchack last night to win perhaps their most important game of the basketball season.
This erratic, unpredictable Washington team, which lost to lowly Kansas City at home Wenesday night, refused to fold in the fourth period and whipped the New York Knicks, 123-108.
The triumph extended the Bullets' lead ti three games over the Knicks in the battle for third place in the NBA Eastern Conference playoff structure with six Bullet contests remaining, including a Knick rematch Sunday in Washington.
At the same time, however, the Bullets were officially eliminted from first place in the Central Division when San Antonio defeated Cleveland. It marked the third straight year Washington has failed to win the division it once dominated.
But the Bullets were too Busy celebrating last night to worry about San Antonio. They came her knowing they had to win and they did despite a series of incredible events.
The Washington bench, as inconsistent lately as the rest of the team, was the difference, supporting Bob Dandridge's 28 points and Hayes' 22 rebounds with a superior effort.
Charles Johnson scored nine of his 15 points in the final 2:24 of the game, and his seven straight helped Washington expand a 98-96 lead.
Greg Ballard contributed eight points early in the same period to keep his side close when the knicks finally found their shooting touch and seemed ready to take control.
Larry Wright (seven points) and Phil Walker (10) filled in admirably for Henderson, who bruised the outside of his right thigh in the first half and did not play in the second. He is questionable for tonight's 8:05 contest against Cleveland in Capital Centre.
Although the Knicks were without guard Earl Monroe, serving a one-game suspension, and Spencer Haywood, bad knee, their difficulties weren't nearly as troublesome as what face Bullet Coach Dick Motta down the strect.
He lost Hayes with 9:25 to go when the veteran forward snapped his chin against his chest on a rebound and temporarily cut off the circulation to his head. He became dizzy, had to go to the dressing room and did not play again.
Then Kupchak and Lonnie Shelton were involved in a scuffle under the Bullet basket with 6:13 remaining, resulting in both being tossed out of the game.
Maneuvering for rebounding position, they were pushing each other and Shelton (6-foot-8, 245) said he finally elbowed Kupchak (6-10, 230) Kupchak claimed he pushed back; Shelton said Kupchak punched him.
There was no dispute about what happened next. Shelton landed one blow and then, while being restrained, struck Kupcjak twice on the side of the head, opening a cut on the ear. Kupchak sat down "not from the blow," he said, "but to think about what was going to happen to us."
Shelton said that "all this could have been avoided if they called the pushing under the basket. it happened in the heat of the battle. I'm sorry, it's just one of those things."
After the game, Kupchak went into the knicks locker room and the players shook hands. "I said to him, "That's the way it goes, man," and he said, 'Alright,' and we shook hands," Kupchak said. "It's over."
"you can't stop what happened tonight - it was instantaneous," Kupchack said. "It's unfortunate that it happened. It wasn't temper, it was something that just flared up. We're both at fault."
Both players said they expected to be penalized in some fashion next week by NBA Commissioner Lawrence O'Brien, who has fined and/or suspended any player involved in fights this season.
Without Kupchak and Hayes, Motta finished with Dandridge and Ballard at forward. Then Kevin Grevery fouled out with 3:45 left and the Bullets had no more big guards left.
But Johnson played big enough to make up for Grevey's loss. After the Bullets had gone ahead, 104-97, on baskets by Grevey and Dandridge and two Wright foul shots, Johnson came alive.
With time running out on the 24-second clock, he swished a 25-footer. After a Dandridge basket, Johnson made a wide-open jumper from the right side. Then he sank a 15-footer and was fouled by Butch Beard. He converted the three-point play, added two foul shots moments later and the Bullets had it wrapped up, 115-104.
Washington made 11 of its final 14 shots. In losing to Kansas City Wednesday night, the Bullets missed most of their last shots in regulation to give the Kings a chance to win the game.
"We talked last night about how that loss was the low point of the season; we were embarrassed," said Motta. "Tonight, we talked business, there was more intensity, you could feel it. We needed it."
At the other end of the locker room, Johnson was talking about the importance "of getting contributions from every Bullet. It's difficult to depend on five guys every night to beat their six or seven.
"We all knew we had to win. We should be getting ready for the play-offs and we haven't been. We had to start working harder and I think this was a good sign."
But Motta wasn't about to celebrate too much. He remembered his team had just lost four of its last six home games and was returning home tonight.
"Maybe," he said, "we can wear our road uniforms. It might work."