The smile on Coach Dick Motta's face at the buzzer told the whole story. It was one of those "I can't believe it" looks, which was how the Atlanta Hawks felt after the Bullets made up a 16-point deficit in the last quarter to pull out a 106-102 victory in a game they had every right to lose.
Washington couldn't do much right for three quarters, then couldn't do anything wrong in the final nine minutes, especially Mitch Kupchak, who poured in 12 points over that span to bring his club back from almost sure defeat.
Kupchak finished with 22 points, including a baseline jumper that put Washington in front for good, 102-100, with 1:15 to go. Kevin Grevey, who had 17 of his 21 points after intermission, followed with a rebound of a missed Elvin Hayes shot 32 seconds later for a four-point bulge and Hayes took a feed from Bob Dandridge with 13 seconds left to wrap it up.
Hayes, coming off a 21-point, 26-rebound performance against Phoenix Friday night, put together a 26-point, 13-rebound masterpiece in this one. Eighteen of those points came in the second half when almost all the Bullets awoke from an inexplicable sleep walk.
Atlanta, which also played Friday night, was missing leading scorer John Drew but his absence hardly was noticed through the first 39 minutes as Wayne Rollins (22 points) and Dan Roundfield (17 points) controlled the game inside for the Hawks.
After grabbing a 91-75 lead with 9:21 left, Atlanta suddenly lost all the continuity and stiff defense that had enabled it to build the seemingly comfortable advantage.
The Bullets took advantage of the collapse by running off 23 of the next 28 points to go up, 98-96, on a Hayes jumper.
Washington had been shooting horribly -- "we should have been behind by 40, we were so bad," said Motta -- but in the comeback the Bullets missed only two of nine attempts.
"Kupchak was the reason," said Hawk Coach Hubie Brown. "He wanted the basketball. It's called desire. We stood around and he killed us inside. This was a heart breaker for us. We shouldn't have lost it after being in complete charge for so long."
The Washington rally began significantly enough when Kupchak picked up a missed Hayes shot and put it in. Six quick points had the Hawks lead down to eight, but Washington had drawn within single figures three other times after the first quarter but failed to keep the momentum.
This time, the Bullets changed the trend. After a vicious Rollins' tapin, Grevey popped a jumper over Armond Hill, who picked up his fifth foul. The three-point play was followed by another Grevey field goal and the margin was five.
The young Hawks were coming unglued. Roundfield was on the bench with a twisted ankle and without Drew, they had no one to turn to for baskets. They missed seven shots in a row, then rookie Jack Givens turned the ball over and Hayes swished one of his patented turnaround jumpers to make it 93-90.
Guard Eddie Johnson's two free throws appeared to bolster his club by stopping Washington's 15-2 spurt. Brown sent back a limping Roundfield but Kupchak, pounding the boards relentlessly, couldn't be handled inside. He was fouled on rebounds on two straight possessions and made four straight free throws, fouling out Roundfield in the process.
Now the Bullets were only one behind. Givens, the hero of Kentucky's NCAA championship in March, wanted to salvage this game too, but couldn't connect on a perimeter shot.
Motta called a play for Ballard, who sank a jumper over Givens for a 96-95 Washington lead, its first since the opening minutes of the game. Johnson countered with a foul shot at the other end to knot it at 96.
The game was still deadlocked at 100 when the Bullets called timeout with 1:25 remaining. Motta put in Dandridge, who had been on the bench nine minutes, and called a play that set up a Kupchak baseline jumper. Kupchak came through with an unerring 19-footer, forcing an Atlanta timeout.
The Hawks wanted to go inside to Rollins and were successful, but the former Clemson star smashed the layup attempt too hard off the boards. The ball was picked off by Hayes, who fired up an air ball at the other end.
But Grevey had raced inside from the right of the basket, caught the shot in midair and laid it in. Atlanta countered with a Givens field goal but Washington broke the Hawks' press as Dandridge dribbled out of a double team trap and fed Hayes for an open layup.
"Once we started coming back, we began running our plays and doing the right things,' said Motta. "The Hawks' shooting fell off but it's a lot different when you are taking a jumper 15 ahead than when you are one behind, especially after our defense got so much better."