The Bullets made their club-record tying ninth straight victory harder than necessary tonight. They blew a 17-point firsthalf lead, then needed an acrobatic layup by Wes Unseld to pull out a 117-115 triumph over New Orleans.
Unseld's shot -- a right-handed underhand toss from the left side with five seconds remaining -- was set up by a marvelous pass from Bob Dandridge, who was double-teamed at the top of the key and found Unseld open under the basket.
That play took the wind out of what had been a splendid comeback by the Jazz, who got 19 points from Pete Maravich in the fourth quarter and came within a few missed shots of winning.
The Bullets last won nine straight in December 1968, when Unseld was a surprising rookie out of the University of Louisville.But that streak doesn't match up to this current string, which includes five road victories, an almost-unheard-of accomplishment in the NBA.
Washington will try to break the record Saturday night when it hosts Kasnsas City at 8:05 in Capital Centre. It won't be easy, since the Bullets have a 5:30 a.m. wakeup call and must fly all morning to return home.
But that game can't be any tougher than this nail-biter against the Jazz, who seemed overwhelmed and ready to collapse in the face of 62 percent first-half Washington shooting.
But Maravich, who is learning to play better with a still-ailing knee, wouldn't let his team falter. He got into one of his incredible shooting streaks, in which he turns 25-footers into layups, and brought New Orleans back in a hurry behind his 37 points.
The Jazz drew within range early in the fourth quarter and then wasted precious minutes trying to cut into a four-point Bullet bulge. Time after time, a bad pass or missed layup would prevent any further reduction. Those failures probably cost New Orleans the game.
Maravich finally took things on himself after Washington got the lead to 112-105 with 2:16 remaining. He made a running layup to cap a 6-0 New Orleans spurt and then hit a 28-foot bomb to tie the game at 113 with 46 seconds to go.
The Bullets, who stopped running in the second half and turned frigid from the field, refused to panic. They got the ball to Dandridge, who was working against the inexperienced ira Terrell, and he responded with a 12-footer 18 seconds later.
After a Jazz time out, Tim Henderson fouled Truck Robinson and the New Orleans forward sank his 25th and 26th points for a tie a 115.
Henderson dribbled the ball into the front court, setting up a play called by acting Coach Bernie Bickerstaff during the timeout. Dandridge took the pass and looked immediately for his shot.
But Jazz center Rich Kelley left Unseld and double-teamed Dandridge, looking for the block. That's when Dandridge spied Unseld alone underneath.
"It was Bobby's play; I just caught the ball," said Unseld. "Give Wes credit, he got himself open," said Dandridge. "I didn't realize Kelley was on me but I could see Wes and I could see Elvin (Hayes) with Truck. Instinctively, I figured two guys were on me."
It was a situation in which Washington's experience was important. "We didn't have to rush," said Bickerstaff. "We knew with 28 seconds left that we had to have the ball one more time before the game ended, even if they tied it. We called our two normal, end-of-the-game plays and then we took advantage when New Orleans broke down"
New Orleans had one last try. Maravich dribbled the length of the court and got off a good shot, an 18-footer from the right corner. It hit the rim and bounced over the backboard as the buzzer sounded.
Dandridge finished with 27 points, but only seven came after intermission. He made his first six shots and was eight of 10 from the floor at the half. In the second, however, he said he got "careless on offense," stopped working for the ball and contributed to a general breakdown in the Bullet attack.
Still, he finished with impressive statistics. Besides his points, he had nine rebounds and eight assists. Unseld had seven assists, 13 points and 11 rebounds, two less than Hayes.
Kevin Grevey suffered a hard fall early in the game after colliding with Kelley and played only 20 minutes. His replacement, Charles Johnson, scored 18 points.
The Bullets' big first-half margin was built mostly on the play of the bench, which ran by New Orleans in the second quarter. Greg Ballard scored eight straight points during one stretch and Johnson and Mitch Kupchak both had six points in the period.
But many of the points were coming off long shots, not off a set offense or fast breaks. Once the Bullets turned cold after intermission and Maravich got hot, the complexion of the game changed
"We weren't quite as sharp as we have been," said Bickerstaff, who will relinquish his duties to Dick Motta tonight. "But you can't expect to blow everyone out every night, especially on the road." CAPTION: Picture 1, Washington's Kevin Grevey crashes into Rich Kelly of New Orleans on a drive to the basket in first quarter. The Bullet guard was called for a foul and shaken up on play. UPI; Picture 2, Caps' Ryan Walter falls into the goal, and so does the puck, to give Washington a 2-1 first-period lead over Penguins . AP