It was Dave Cowens' most frustrating night since being named player-coach of the Boston Celtics. He saw a game against the Washington Bullets slip away because of what he called "incompetent officiating" and he was boiling inside.
"It was almost like he (referee Tommy Nunez) fixed the game," Cowens said after the 125-117 loss before 14,588 at Capital Centre. "I didn't say he fixed it. It just looked that way."
Cowens was angered by a Nunez call with 2:15 left in the game and the Bullets ahead, 109-107. Cowens was trying to tap in a rebound when Nunez said he backed into Mitch Kupchak and pushed off the Bullet center with his hands.
"It was the worst call in the world," said Cowens, who picked up his sixth foul on the play. "There was no contact. It's incompetence on their part and there is no retribution." The videotape replay over the Centre TelScreen appeared to verify Cowens' claim there was no contact.
Before leaving the game, Cowens protested so vigorously that Nunez hit him with a technical. When the Celtics wouldn't stop arguing, Nunez slapped both guard Chris Ford and Assistant Coach Bob MacKinnon with technicals.
After Bob Dandridge made all three technical foul free throws and Kupchak made one of two foul shots, the Bullets were ahead, 113-107. It became a six-point turnaround for the Celtics, who saw Cowens' tip-in basket nullified in the process.
"My players play a hell of a game and then this happens," said Cowens. "There ought to be some checks and balances in this damn league when you get officiating like this."
Even with Cowens, who had 25 points, on the bench, the Celtics made one last spurt. They had the ball, trailing, 115-111. Then elvin Hayes rebounded a missed shot by Cornbread Maxwell. The ball was knocked out of Hayes' hands and Ford picked it up and drove the middle on the Bullet forward.
Hayes, irate that no foul had been called, soared high and made Ford miss his shot. Hayes then grabbed that rebound, dribbled three-quarters of the court and passed off to Kupchak, whose flying layup put the contest out of Boston's reach.
With Wes Unseld sitting out the second half with a chest bruise suffered in the Detroit game Friday night, Kupchak had a big evening, scoring 28 points, 13 in the fourth period. Hayes, coming off a 28-point effort against the Pistons, added 29 and 15 rebounds.
"Wes tried it out and it didn't feel right," said Bullet Coach Dick Motta. "He couldn't play in the second half. But he will be okay."
Unseld said he could have gone in "if they needed me."
It was the Bullets' 15th win in 17 games and their fourth in a row. They now have a 22-9 record and the most victories in the NBA.
"There were many nights when we would have lost this kind of game last year," said Motta, whose team lacked cohesiveness most of the contest. "But this year, we seem to have the knack of pulling them out."
The Celtics, however, were sure they would have won without Nunez' interference. Boson, 8-8 under Cowens, played one of its best games under his leadership, with impressive performances from Ford (22 points) and JoJo White (23 points, 14 in the last half).
White had wanted to quit the team at the beginning of the week but Cowens talked him out of it. Last night, the veteran guard found his missing jump shot and, combined with Ford's hustle and Marvin Barnes' 10 points in the third quarter, refused to let Washington gain control.
"We were running our inside game so well they (the Bullets) were confused," said Cowens. "They didn't know which guy was going to go next. This showed us how good we can be if we play well."
This was hardly the vintage Celtics, as Cowens relied heavily on the likes of youngsters Maxwell and Barnes and gave veterans Nate Archibald and Billy Knight little playing time.
Cowens' decision to continue shaking up his starting lineup appears to be helping his team. The Celtics hustled better than three weeks ageo, when Washington ran away with a victory at Boston Garden. And there is more method to his substitutions.