There have been whispers about the National Basketball Association that the Denver Nuggets are so many flashes in the pan this season. Not tonight. They handed the Bullets their worst defeat of the season, 121-90.
Washington's Rocky Mountain low ended a three-game winning streak and allowed the Philadelphia 76ers to creap within two games of its first-place lead in the Atlantic Division.
The Nuggets have played sporadically this season, going above.500 with tonight's success. One of the reasons has been a sudden sour streak at home. Before this year, the most games they ever lost at home in a season had been eight. They have lost seven here already this season.
But tonight they could do little wrong, gaining a 40-point lead with more than four minutes left in the third quarter. Had the officials not denied a shot that seemed to go through before the buzzer, Washington could have merely tied its worst seasonal loss, a 121-92 setback at Seattle Oct. 25.
Coach Dick Motta sensed problems for the Bullets earlier in the day, saying, "There's really something to this altitude business. Denver ought to win 35 games (out of 41 here) because of it."
Almost from the opening tip, Motta's worst fears began to come true. On the Nuggets' first possession, there occurred that rarest of NBA sights -- a Charlie Scott assist. Before witnesses, Scott drove the lane, forced Elvin Hayes toward him but did not manufacture some midair scoop shot.
Instead, he slipped a pass to the wide-open George McGinnis for a dunk -- and the Nuggets were off and running throughout the first half.
From 2-0, Denver mixed free-lance and set plays and the Bullets could not hit Pike's Peak. From 16-11, Denver pulled to 31-19 and then to 47-25 when Hayes threw a chest pass directly to Bobby Wilkerson and watched him throw in a stuff at the other end of the court.
"I thought we played as badly the first half against Atlanta," Motta said, referring to the Saturday game that the Bullets came back and won. Did that mean Motta thought Washington could recover in the second half tonight?
Typical of the Bullets' problems was the basket before Wilkerson's steal and stuff. Kevin Grevey needed help near the free-throw lane on David Thompson and Larry Wright moved off Robert Smith to provide it.
So Thompson faked a drive and passed to Smith 18 feet from the basket.
"Good job," Motta yelled to Wright.
No sooner had the words left his lips than Smith hit the jumper.
By halftime, the Nuggets had a 26-point lead, with five players scoring at least eight points and Thompson hitting 16. Washington shot just 29 percent, with Kevin Grevey two for 12.
For contrast, the worst Nugget shooters were McGinnis, Dan fssel and reserve Tom Boswell, who each were 50 percent.
"Nice show, world's champs," a fan needled.
Part of the Bullets' troubles was an insistance on throwing up the first decent shot. Denver hardly was the model of patience, but 58 percent of its second-quarter shots went in Then the Nuggets really got hot.
In the third quarter, Washington made six of its first 10 shots -- and watched the Denver lead increase from 16 to 32 points. With 4:21 left in the third quarter, the Nuggets had a 40-point lead, 87-47 and Coach Larry Brown allowed such as John Kuester some playing time.
The world's worst professional freethrow shooter, Kim Hughes, had half as many rebounds, seven, as Washington had as a team the first half. The Nuggets, meanwhile, had 11 more rebcunds.
Motta had five reserves start the fourth quarter and with 7:30 left called a timeout that was mandatory with three minutes to go. With good reason he wanted the end to come as quickly as possible.