There was at time when Dick Motta would use only starters near the end of close games. But in his 26th year of basketball coaching, he is changing his thinking, thanks to the play of his Washington Bullet reserves.
Those substitutes dominated the fourth quarter again yesterday in Capital Centre, scoring 15 of the Bullet's last 19 points to pull out a 110-102 victory Golden State on a day when the home club was ripe for defeat.
"We are exhausting a lot of clubs because of our depth," said forward Bob Dandridge, who has had to play more than 33 minutes only once during the Bullets' current seven-game winning streak, their longest in two years and second best since 1968.
Washington has taken 10 of its last 12 and move into a virtual tie with Philadephia for the NBA Atlantic Division lead. During their streak, the Bullets have outscored opponents by 18 points a game while averaging 123.
Fatigue became the toughest foe yesterday for the Warriors, who could not match Washington's depth at the end and fell to the sharpshooting of Charles Johnson (six points in the last seven minutes) and the rebounding of Mitch Kupchak (five, plus nine points).
Motta says he uses Johnson in pressure moments "because I trust him," but the same could be said now about Kupchak, Larry Wright and Greg Ballard. The Bullet coach is more apt this season to stay with the hot hand of a reserve instead of automatically reverting to his first string the last five minutes.
"I just don't want to mess with what is going well," said Motta. "The reserves know they can play and I realize it gives them confidence to stay in when things are in doubt."
His faith has been rewarded, especially in the last three games. Of the club's 84 fourth-period points in those contests, the subs accounted for 62.Johnson provided 24 and Kupchak 19 of those.
"If you look at every one of the games in the streak, you'll probably see where the whole team has contributed pretty evenly," said Dandridge. "Everyone is getting about the same number of shots. I think this is a team at peace with itself now and that is reflected on the court."
This is how much Motta is willing to go with the reserves: despite a zero-for-seven first half by Johnson he put in the veteran guard with 5:50 left in the game and was immediately rewarded with three straight Johnson baskets.
And Kupchak was only two of six before intermission, but he played the entire fourth period and combined with Elvin Hayes to grab almost every missed Golden State shot.
Until the last quarter, the Bullets played as if they were ready to end their wining streak. Their inept effort was lowlighted by 19 percent shooting in the second period, when they scored only 14 points.
Fortunately, Golden State seemed just as affected by the dull atmosphere at the Centre and played almost seven minuted in the same quarter without a field goal.
"Considering we were down only five points (49-44) at half, we were pretty fortunate," Motta said. "When you don't hit outside shots against their one, you are going to look bad. A lot of the stuff that had been going in for us wasn't in this one, but I'm encouraged that we cold still win even when things were hard for us and we had to struggle."
Wes Unseld (16 points, 17 rebounds, four assists) and Dandridge (20 points, eight assists) kept the Bullets close during their shooting slump in the first 24 minutes. Then Kevin Grevey, who has been having trouble scoring in the second half, made five of 10 attempts in the third, added three assists and brought them within 78-77.
A layup by Ballard and Grevey's 21st point put Washington ahead for good, 91-88, in the fourth quarter but the Warriors were not completely subdued until a Johnson jumper, a Wright layup off a long pass from Kupchak, a Kupchak foul shot and another Johnson downtown bomb moments later.
Golden State hurt itself with nine fourth-quarter turnovers, more than enough to offset a nine-point effort by John Lucas, who finished with 21 points and six assists. The Warrior bench delivered only 20 points, to the Washington subs's 33.
"The biggest change I've seen in this league has been the increased quality of reserves," said Johnson, who had made 26 of his last 46 shots. "Before, there was a drop in talent when you had to go to your bench. Now there isn't.
"Fortunately for the Bullets, they've kept up with the trend. Otherwise they wouldn't be looking at many winning streaks like this one."