The Washington Bullets tried to give Detroit an early Christmas present tonight but the Pistons turned it down. In the process, they ruined Coach Dick Vitale's holiday spirit.
"It's going to be a black Christmas for Dick Vital," he said after losing, 116-114. "We took the greatest team in basketball to the wire and couldn't win."
The Bullets seemed to have things wrapped up when Bob Dandridge sank an eight-footer with 41 seconds left and then Detroit couldn't score on John Long's wild layup at the end.
But Washington got generous and ran out the 24-second clock without getting off a shot. That gave the Pisons two seconds for one attempt to send the game into overtime.
"It shouldn't have happened, we should have put up a shot and the clock would have run out," said Bullet Coach Dick Motta. "I thought they'd foul us and they didn't and then they didn't hear me when I wanted a shot."
The Pistons went to Earl Tatum for the final try. He launched a 30-footer from the head of the key and the ball bounded off the side of the rim as the buzzer sounded, insuring Washington's seventh straight road win and 14th victory in its last 16 games.
Washington didn't confine its goodwill to the final seconds, however. Another awful display from the foul line (26 of 45) kept Detroit close all night despite the absence of center Bob Lanier, who still is recovering from knee surgery.
"When you miss your free throws," said Motta, "you put yourself in a position where you have to play well at the end. You have to scramble fromthe hole you dig for yourself."
The Bullets are very familiar with this foul-shooting predicament. Fortunately for them, the Pistons were handicapped just as much by foul problems. They wound up losing their three best rebounders-Ben Poquette, Leon Douglas and Terry Tyler-on fouls within 36 seconds late in the foruth quarter.
That left Vitale with a makeshift team at the end. He had to put Long, a rookie guard, on Dandridge and Motta immediately took advantage of the mismatch by calling a play for Dandridge.
"I was going to go to Elvin (Hayes) but with Long on Dandridge, I changed my mind," said Motta."Bobby got good position inside and got a good shot."
Hayes was the logical player to use. He scored 28 points, six in the final two minutes, and had 18 rebounds, while Dandridge registered only 13 points. But Dandridge, a great pressure player, never hesitated against Long, sinking a short turnaround jumper.
"I wasn't worried about the shot," said Dandridge, "as much as I was getting double-teamed. So instead of turning toward the middle, I turned toward the baseline.That way, no one could reach in and grab the ball."
The Pistons probably deserved a better fate. They were outmanned go- ing into the game, but got superior efforts from Douglas (23 points, 10 straight field goals), Poquette (19 points, 11 rebounds), Tyler (19 points, 12 rebounds), M. L. Carr (21 points, 10 rebounds) and Kevin Porter (16 points, 12 assists) to all but neutralize the Bullets.
But Washington's experience and newfound confidence since winning the NBA title again proved superior down the stretch.
"The Bullets have been there before and they know how to win," Carr said of the team that lost close games with regularity last season. "We gave a super effort, but we got bad every time we got into a crucial situation."
Except in a few stretches the Bullets weren't particularly sharp. They led by 12 in the second quarter but had to play catch-up most of the last half after Detroit went on an 11-2 spurt to open the third period.
The Pistons were up by eight with 6:23 remaining in the game when Dandridge reentered after a long rest and the Bullets ran off nine of the next 11 points. Moments later a three-point play by Hayes tied it at 112 to set up the last crucial seconrds.
Detroit's chances were hurt considerably when Douglas picked up his sixth foul with 1:01 to go. He and Wes Unseld were jockeying for position in the low post and Douglas was caught pushing away Unseld's arm. When he left, Vitale had no more big men to put into the game.
The Bullets, who have won their last three, return to Capital Centre Saturday night for a 8:05 meeting with the Boston Celtics, a club they beat by 16 points three weeks ago.
"We didn't play all that well (against Detroit) but you have to pick up some like this," said Dandridge. "But give Detroit credit. If they didn't get into foul trouble, it miht have been a different story at the end."