It was an appropriate night for Dick Motta to move into third place on the NBA's all-time coaching victory list.
His Bullets beat the Indiana Pacers, 108-104, in the scrappy, workman-like way that reflects his coaching personality. The player he probably admires the most, Wes Unseld, was the major reason a surprisingly large Capital Centre crowd of 14,909 went home happy.
Unseld, the no-nonsense, methodical bull of a center, returned from a rib injury that kept hom out of three games to score a season-high 26 points on 11 of 17 shooting. He also added 16 rebounds on a night when most of his teammates appeared to have celebrated Christmas a bit too strenuously.
"It was a blue-collar game," Motta said about his 472nd NBA victory, which moved him ahead of Alex Hannum and behind only Red Auerbach and Red Holzman on the coaching list. "You just had to put on your uniform and work at it. Nothing came easy."
Those are the nights Motta likes best, when he can use his skills and experience to probe for proper player combinations and opponent weaknesses to pull out a victory when a loss seems apparent.
Unseld also seems at his best when the play is erratic and his uncanny nose for the basketball becomes particularly significant.
There was nothing funny about what Unseld did. The Pacers chose to double-team Elvin Hayes and Bobby Dandridge most of the night, so Unseld simply moved to the basket and waited for a pass.
Dandridge (season-high 10 assists) and Hayes couldn't resist finding such a wide-open-and big-target. A quick pass inside and Unseld had a wide-open layup.
"He (Indiana center James Edwards) was turning his back to me more than double-teaming," Unseld said. "He'd follow the ball. I always get open a lot like that. Only tonight, they were passing me the ball."
Dandridge didn't have much choice.
"If we hadn't passed to such a wide-open target, we'd probably be booed out of the arena," he said. "Everyone tries to double-team us, but Indiana just doesn't do it as well. They don't disguise it as well. Maybe Edwards isn't experienced enough yet to fake it and throw us off."
Even with Unseld's unexpected production, the Bullets had to struggle. Injuries kept getting in the way every time they tried to make a move to wrap up the triumph.
Besides Unseld's sore ribs, which he said didn't bother him, Greg Ballard sprained an ankle, Kevin Grevey twisted an ankle and Hayes bruised his hip. Unseld also picked up an ankle bruise that forced a brief taping session in the locker room.
"For a minute, I thought the injury jinx was really going to kill us," Motta said. "It's about that time. I was just grateful we won this one. We weren't sharp, our bodies were a half-step behind, and you just want to walk into the dressing room with a victory."
Washington led by 11 points midway through the final period before Indiana rallied within 103-100. That's when Unseld scored his final points, on two free throws, after being fouled on a layup set up by a nice Hayes pass.
After an Alex English field goal, Dandridge converted one of two foul shots for a four-point bulge with 37 seconds left. Edwards sank a jumper to narrow the lead to two, but the Bullets ran the clock to eight seconds before Henderson was fouled. His two free throws gave Washington its 24th triumph in 35 games, the NBA's best record.
"Wes was probably the only one rested enough to play well," Motta said. "Most of the squad went home for Christmas and didn't come in until today. It was hard for them to get their minds on the game.
"As long as Indiana kept zoning, it just took a good basketball play to score a basket. That's why we want to get Bobby to the top of the key or just to the left of it. If he makes any kind of move, they put two men on him and he can pass. If we had mad e every layup he set up, he would have had five or six more assists."
This victory was a stark contrast to Motta's first as a pro. Eleven years ago, he was a rookie coach with the Chicago Bulls fresh from a successful stint at Weber State. He had been told he couldn't win at this level, and then saw his club capture his initial contest against the Knicks in New York.
"Clem Haskins wrapped it up with four points at the end," Motta recalled. "It was like a college atmosphere in the locker room afterward. Then we won the next game, also on the road and I said there was nothing to this league.
"That's when the Celtics beat us be 22. I learned real quick what it was like."
Mostly, he learned that what he calls "those basketball plays," fundamentals like give-and-go passes and finding the open man, will work on any level. And he learned, too, that it takes talent to win, no matter how good the coaching.
"If you don't have people like Wes and the rest of these guys," he said, "you lose, no matter what I do.Tonight I was just looking for the hot players and the combinations that work the best. You breathe a little harder and you smile longer when it's over."