The Seattle Magicians pulled their famed sleight of hand trick on the Bullets last night, literally stealing a victory after trailing by 17 points early in the second half.
Seattle, known going into the game as the Super-Sonics, forced 28 turnovers with Mandrake moves and turned those mistakes into 28 points, enough to pull out a 103-100 triumph at Capital Centre.
Gus Williams, who should audition for the lead in the Magic Show, was responsible for nine of those turnovers, including a final steal from Tom Henderson that ended Bullet chances in this confrontation of pro basketball's best teams.
A noisy crowd of 15,232 thought it was witnessing a Bullet runaway after three quarters. The home team appeared on the verge of turning the contest into a laugher.
But the NBA champions quickly forgot a few basic basketball fundamentals, such as how to complete a pass, and as quickly as you can say "presto" the Sonics were threatening.
Just as in the final round of the playoffs last June, Seattle's guards did the bulk of the damage. Fred Brown turned in enough trick shots to score eight points down the stretch and Williams added 12, including eight on turnovers.
"I just happened to be in the right place at the right time," said Williams, who finished with 24 points, six more than Brown."We weren't really gambling."
Don't tell that to the Bullets. They thought the Sonics were pulling off the basketball version of blitzing linebackers on almost every play. Wherever Washington looked, a Seattle player would be lurking, like a human octopus batting away the ball.
Seattle began its comeback with an 8-0 spurt early in the fourth quarter, helped by two straight Larry Wright turnovers. Moments later, another 8-0 outburst, again built on two Bullet mistakes, gave the Sonics a 91-90 lead after they trailed, 84-71, entering the period.
The Bullets regained the lead, 98-95, after two Bobby Dandridge foul shots. Then center Jack Sikma, named Monday to the NBA West All-Star team, swished two straight jump shots. Wes Unseld lost the ball trying to dribble across the middle and Sikma replied with a pair of free throws for a 101-98 advantage.
An Elving Hayes layup on a new out-of-bounds play pulled the Bullets within one. Sikma missed at the other end and Hayes and Lonnie Shelton wound up on the floor, tying up the ball. Hayes won a jump and Washington called time with 15 seconds left.
Washington wanted to try the same out-of-bounds play that had just been successful, but Seattle doubled-teamed Hayes. Dandridge got the ball to the right of the basket, spied a Sonic coming over to help out on him and passed the ball to Henderson at the top of the key.
Henderson tried a quick catch and pass, hoping to get the ball over to Charles Johnson, who was wide open on the left side. But Williams said the ball slipped out of Henderson's hands as he unloaded it; Williams tipped it twice, grabbed it and floated in for the clinching basket.
"I took my eyes off it," said Henderson, "CJ was wide open and I rushed it too much. We just didn't do a good job of protecting the ball. We got ahead and we forgot what got us there."
Coach Dick Motta blamed his club's demise on a lot of "non-NBA plays. These weren't three-second calls; they were turnovers. We didn't have any electricity out there. We didn't play that well to get ahead and then to give up 28 points on turnovers, we should have lost."
Seattle, the league's best defensive team, has won five straight road games, a franchise record, including three on this trip. The Sonics demonstrated last night how best to succeed away from home, by maintaining poise and relying on patience and defense to stay in the game.
Dandridge totaled 23 points and Unseld 18. Seattle collapsed around Hayes in the second half and limited him to 14 points, althugh he had 12 rebounds and a season-high seven blocks.
The Bullets broke down, however, in the back court. Kevin Grevey played despite a sore hamstring but was not sharp. Johnson missed his first seven shots and finished two for 14. Henderson was four of 13 and Wright one of three.
Concidentally, in last spring's playoffs, every time the Seattle guards played well and their Bullet counterparts didn't, the Sonics won. And this time, the visitors even survived a six-for-19 effort from their usually reliable Dennis Johnson.
Before the Bullets started standing around in the fourth quarter and forgot to run plays, they were coasting along as easily as if they were opposing Indiana instead of the Pacific Division leader.
Dandridge made eight shots in a row at one stage and along with a healthy 28-18 halftime rebounding advantage and Unseld's strong 10-point, five rebound, two-assist opening quarter, Washington was overwhelming the sloppy Sonics.
When the Bullets ran off eight quick points to begin the third period and jump ahead, 66-49, the game appeared to be taking on the mismatch characteristics of the teams' first meeting this year, which Seattle won by 29 in its Kingdome.
The Sonics missed their first seven shots of that quarter and were letting the Bullets get away with a bunch of easy fast breaks.
"Then I think we got into too much one-on-one stuff," said Hayes. "They got a few steals and that changed things around. You just can't let things like this worry you."
Until the Sonics comeback, the most memorable moment of the contest came in the first half when Hayes tossed an over-the-head pass to Unseld, wide open under the basket.
Few plays came so easy to Washingto the rest of the game.