With the Washington Bullets on the verge of making a mockery of the race for the best record in the National Basketball Association, Coach Dick Motta displayed the first sure sign of pennant fever last night. He began talking about "magic numbers."
"What is it, 16 (victories to clinch the best record)?" he said after his team knocked off San Antonio, 129-128, in a crowd-pleaser before 17,181 at Capital Centre."We are staring to get playoff intensity now, even though no one is pushing. This was a big day for us.)
Washington's main competitors for that top record -- Los Angeles, Kansas City, Philadelphia and the Spurs -- all lost yesterday and now any combination of Bullet wins or Laker losses adding up to 15 will clinch the top record and the home-court advantage in every playoff series.
No one other than the Lakers is within six games of Washington in the loss column with 20 contests left. But just as important to Motta, his players are rested, lively and doing as well on offense as they have all season.
He Bullet firepower was evident last night. They played lackluster defense so they had to outscore the rampaging Spurs, the NBA's top offensive squad. And they did, thanks to their veteran frontcourt which put on a demonstration worthy of the playoffs.
Elvin Hayes went over the 30-point mark for the fourth straight game by hitting for 32 while pulling in 20 rebounds. Wes Unseld had a season-high 28 points while adding 17 rebounds. And Bob Dandridge popped in 28 points while dishing off eight assists.
Those three also made 37 of 62 shots while playing at least 40 minutes each. Toss in floor leader Tom Henderson's 10 assists, 13 points and competitive defensive job on George Gervin, who scored 34 points anyway, and it should have been a Bullet runaway.
But San Antonio refuses to die on nights when it shoots 52 percent. The Spurs fell behind by as many as nine points early in the fourth quarterthen tied at 120 before Henderson's six points in the final 20 seconds, including four on four free throws, wrapped up the triumph.
Two weeks ago, the Bullets had a slight lead over Seattle and Philadelphia in the best-record derby. Since then, the 76ers have lost nine of 11 to fall nine games behind in the Atlantic Division while Seattle has dropped 5 1/2 games back and Kansas City is five behind.
During that span, Motta has hardly practiced his players and Dandridge says now, "Our bodies are much more alive than at this point last year." That was evident last night when the Bullets were able to turn back every San Antonio rally to end the Spurs' four-game winning streak.
Washington needed everything it could get from its inside game since its outside shooting was inaccurate. The front line responded with such domination that no one else on the club broke into double figures until late in the fourth period.
Hayes and Unseld had 32 rebounds by the end of the third, six fower than the Bullets' total. In that period, the three big men scored all but two of their team's 35 points with Unseld getting 12, Dandridge 11 and Hayes 10.
Against that type of power, San Antonia couldn't protect a 72-67 half-time lead and found itself trailing, 112-103, early in the fourth quarter. But Hayes went to the bench moments later for the first time in the half and Larry Kenon scored 11 of the Spurs' next 15 points to get the 120 tie.
Motta than put Dandridge on the Spurs' forward and Kenon didn't score again. Dandridge also gave the Bullets the lead for good on an assist to Unseld for a layup and a foul shot after a technical was called on San Antonio Coach Doug Moe.
Two foul shots from Gervin closed the Bullets' lead to 123-122 but Henderson made two foul shots with 20 seconds to go, a layup with 10 seconds ramaining and two more free throws with four seconds left to run Washington's record to 43-19.
"We were pretty lax on defense and that kept them in the game," said Dandridge. "I think if this was a door-die game, we'd have tightened up more."
The Bullets were able to escape by making what Motta called "good basketball plays." Dandridge mainly was responsible for those gems, finding Unseld repeatedly near the basket with picture passes. San Antonio refused to stop double-teaming the ball and Unseld wound up with seven layups.
"They are a ball-oriented them," said Dandridge, who operated mostly from the high post, leaving the inside to Unseld and Hayes. "You don't force things, you take what they give you."
Hayes spent most of the game swishing his high-arching, turn-around jumpers from both corners. He now has made 59 percent of 127 shots over the past six games, during which he has averaged 31 points.
"I feel relaxed and confident," he said "Everything (his shots) is coming within the offense. I'm not forcing things.
"I was thinking the other day that I used to be one of the top scorers in this league, so I figured I'd go out and do it for a while. It's fun to score like this."
The officlating had Moe upset, his normal state following a Bullet game. When not yelling at the referees, he spent considerable time trying to find the right matchups to handle the Bullets' bit players. He never happened upon the right combination. "We spent the first half playing their game, which is run, gun and no defense," said Henderson, who turned in another quietly efficient outing. "The second half, we decided to play enough defense to win.
"We are riding on a high right now. Things are breaking right for us just when everyone else is struggling. But you won't find anyone on this club complaining about what is happening."