With three of their top six players staffered by injuries, the Bullets needed all-star performances tonight from Bobby Dandridge and Elvin Hayes. What they got was even better.
The two veteran forwards turned in all-galaxy efforts, rallying Washington from a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit as the Bullets squeezed out an exciting 123-122 triumph over the San Antonio Spurs.
Dandridge, working against fellow all-star Larry Kenon, and Hayes, overpowering skinny Mike Green, contributed 22 of the Bullets' final 24 points. The other two came from guard Tom Henderson, who wrapped up the club's first-ever regular-season victory on two foul shots with seven seconds remaining.
Washington played without Mitch Kupchak, whose ailing Achilles tendon prevented him from running in pregame warmups. He will return home Friday and probably have the foot put in a cast during the upcoming All-Star Game break.
Kupchak won't play in Friday's game against Houston (9 p.m., WDCA-TV-20). Also guard Kevin Grevey, who scored 23 tonight before his sore hamstring forced him to the bench, said afterward he didn't think he would play.
The third ailing Bullet, Wes Unseld, limped through the contest on an aching ankle but pulled down 19 rebounds (10 offensive) despite missing most of the fourth period. He said he would try to suit up against Houston "but I don't know how long I can go. I just want to make it to the break."
San Antonio was cruched by the defeat. The Spurs played well, getting 37 points from George Gervin, 23 from James Silas and 19 from Kenon. But Coach Doug Moe charged afterwards that the referees "robbed us. It was the worst-officiated game of the season. They let them get away with everything."
Neither side was particularly happy with the officiating, but their complaints didn't ovrshadow the final couple of minutes, filled with enough strategy and lead changes to keep even the most demanding fan happy.
Dandridge, who finished with 36, and Hayes who added 30 (plus 14 rebounds and five blocks) not only scored the important points down the stretch but they also were instrumental in the crucial defenseive decisions.
With Washington ahead, 121-120, Hayes suggested during a timeout that Greg Ballard cover Silas, the former ABA star who has taken over much of the offense from Gervin.
With Dandridge covering Gervin, the Spurs set up a play for Silas. He drove the middle, but Ballard thought "he got too deep. He tried to lean into we and draw a foul but I put my hands up and kept away. He was yelling at the refs but I didn't touch him."
Silas' off-balance heave missed badly, the Bullets got the rebound with 12 seconds to go and San Antonio fouled Henderson. He wa sperfect on both free throws to make a final Gervin basket meaningless.
"I just felt we should mix it up on them," said Hayes about his coaching suggestion.
Washington began its comeback after trailing, 107-99, early in the fourth. Dandridge, who had only 10 first-half points, suddenly got hot against Kenon, who is vulneable defensively. Dandridge tossed in seven quick points, Hayes added four foul shots and the Bullets stunned the partisan home crowd bu pulling to within one.
"Our strength is inside and ounce we got it going, we just pounded away," said Dandridge, who was 13 of 23 from the field. "San Antonio was double-teaming us early but they got away from that in the fourth and Elvin and I had more room to maneuver. Kenon let up and I felt I could score."
San Antonio stalled the Bullets briefly by drawing ahead, 114-110, before Dandridge scored the final six of his 15 fourth-period points and Hayes, whelling around Green, added a three-point play for a 119-118 advantage.
Gervin had missed three in a row during Washington's rally, so Silas took over. He popped in a 15-footer over Henderson and Washington called time with 59 seconds remaining.
"I told Bobby that he should go one-on-one as long as he could," said Hayes. "When he got tired, he could pass to me. They put (Mark) Olberding on him and Green on me and I knew I could beat him."
Normally, center Billy Paultz would have been on Hayes but he was out after being poked in the eye. Dandridge passed to Hayes in the low post to the left of the basket. He thought Green would play him for a turnaround jumper, so Hayes, as he had on his previous basket, wheeled to the middled and dropped in a four-footer with 25 seconds to go.
That set up Silas' unsuccessful move on Ballard and the Bullets had pulled out a game they seemed destined to lose, especially after Grevey limped off the court in the third period.
Grevey had been blazing in the first half. During one stretch of the first quarter, he produced 13 straight points and had 19 at intermission. But late in that stanza, he stole a pass and raced in for a layup, strehing the alreadly sore hamstrign.
"I felt a twinge," he said, "and it got worse as the game went on. I just couldn't run in the third period so I asked to be taken out. I want to play against Houston but I don't want to be stupid and hurt myself for the rest of the season."