The Bullets, who have lost more games on poor foul shooting the last two seasons than they care to remember, were accurate enough for a change with their free throws last night to shake off the pesky Atlanta Hawks.
Washington scored its last nine points from the foul line and made 37 of 47 for the game to register a 109-105 triumph before 14,398 fans at Capital Centre.
The victory was hardly beautiful. The Hawks aren't concerned about artistry; their scrapping, clawing tactics are designed to disrupt the opposition and that is exactly what they did to the Bullets most of the night.
Washington did not take command until midway through the fourth quarter when Atlanta hit a cold shooting spell and the Bullets moved from a 100-98 deficit to a 105-100 lead. It should have been easy for them the rest of the way, but the Hawks weren't having that.
After two Tom Henderson free throws made it 107-102, Atlanta got a basket from Steve Hawes, a turnover, and a foul shot from Eddie Johnson with 11 seconds left to draw within two. Then Bobby Dandridge was fouled at half court, converted the two free tosses, and Washington had its 34th victory of the season.
There were 64 personal fouls in the contest and 72 free throws. Three Hawks fouled out and one Bullet ended with five fouls.
"I hate to play them," Dandridge said. "They hustle and they run all over. You'd rather play someone like New York. If you played 18 Atlantas, there would be a lot more guys in the training room."
Neither coach was happy with the officiating, inconsistent from the start. Bullet Coach Dick Motta was so disgusted that he declared the NBA's three-referee system "isn't going to work. I was an advocate but it's getting worse. Usually when I win, I calm down, but I'm still hot."
The Bullets, who thrive on consistency and execution, spent the game trying to put together even a small streak of excellence. Every time they would start to look good, Atlanta Coach Hubie Brown would call time and disrupt the momentum.
But Brown, who rarely sits and never stops yelling at both his players and the referees couldn't do anything to prevent poor Hawk shooting.
His men fell behind, 80-72, at the end of three quarters by missing their last 11 attempts of the period. After scrambling back on an 11-0 spurt early in the fourth to go up by four, they again turned erratic.
After a Dan Roudfield dunk put them up, 100-98, the Hawks failed on their next five shots while the Bullets were hitting five from the line and Mitch Kupchak was adding a six-foot drive.
During that Washington spurt, Elvin Hayes was accurate on three of four foul attempts for being hacked twice by Tom McMillen. Henderson, who had only two points until this juncture, was perfect on a pair.
That sequence set up the final hectic seconds, but the Bullets are used to nail-biters against Atlanta.
"They play that way, that's the way they try to win," said Motta. "They have 12 fouls to give at center, 24 at foward and 24 at guard and they use them all.
"They want to disrupt your rhythm. Not too many teams can run their stuff against them. They force you out of what you want to do."
Fortunately for Washington, Hayes didn't seem bothered by anything Atlanta tried. After a horrible eary season showing at the foul line, Hayes has been brilliant lately, making 36 of his last 39 entering the game. Last night, he missed only one of eight while pulling down 18 rebounds (11 in the second quarter) and blocking four shots.
His 23 points topped the Bullets, who got 18 from Kevin Grevey and 17 from Dandridge. Their bench again was strong, the four subs scoring nine to 13 points, including nine in a row by Charles Johnson in the fourth.
Hayes had to overcome the indignation of finding two of his shots blocked during the night, one by Roundfield and one by Tree Rollins. But Hayes had company; Rollins blocked two straight Grevey attempts on one possession.
Dandridge got into early foul trouble and that helped release Atlanta's John Drew, who tossed in 28 points until he fouled out. His departure took way the Hawks' major offensive weapon just when they needed points the most.
The Bullets got only 26 minutes from Wes Unseld, who pulled himself out of the game in the second half after hurting his foot. But Motta thought Unseld should be able to play during Washington's road trip to San Antonio and Houston Friday and Saturday before the All-Star break.