The Washington Bullets, top team in pro basketball, showed up tonight with only eight players to confront New Orleans, the NBA's lowliest. But even with a manpower advantage, the Jazz sounded nothing but sour notes.
Mitch Kupchak (sore back) joined starters Bob Dandridge and Kevin Grevey on the sideline but even without their Nos. 2, 3 and 4 scorers, the Bullets cruised to an 126-107 triumph.
The Jazz, with center Rich Kelley effective, stayed close for a half but once Washington exploded in the third quarter, outscoring its opponent, 39-25, New Orleans fell apart. It got so bad in the fourth that the Jazz missed its first 12 shots and went four minutes without a basket.
The sparse crowd of 4,500 (estimated) was booing and otherwise demonstrating its disgust for the home team, which couldn't prevent Elvin Hayes from having yet another big game.
Hayes, scoring nine of his 32 points in the third, took up much of the scoring slack up front created by Dandridge's absence.
But he received plenty of help, especially after intermission when three other Bullets posted at least six points in the first 12 minutes of the latter half. Each of the five Washington starters finished with at least 14 points for the game.
Kupchak first hurt his back Saturday night at Cleveland when he was forced to leave in the fourth period with spasms. He initially felt he would not play again for a few days but he suited up Sunday against the Cavaliers at home and got in for 15 minutes.
"That was a mistake," he said tonight. "I knew better but I had missed so many games that I felt I should try it. Now I don't know when I'll play again; probably this weekend. I just can't bend it."
Kupchak will miss Wednesday's game against New York in Capital Centre but the Bullets hope at least to get Dandridge back. He also came up injured Sunday, aggravating a chronically sore neck. He was advised by team physician Stanford Lavine to rest a few days.
With only eight men, the Bullets were forced to experiment. Center Wes Unseld played much of the game at forward and, at the end, Coach Dick Motta had guard Phil Chenier at a forward spot in order to give his starters some much-needed rest.
"I didn't have to do much coaching tonight," Motta said with a smile. "With only eight guys, there wasn't much I could do. So I had to earn my pay by cheerleading."
The victory was the Bullets' 21st on the road, assuring them at least a.500 record away from home this season, a rarity in the NBA. With Philadelphia defeating San Antonio, their magic number to wrap up the Atlantic Division title is two.
This was one of the games that Washington would have lost last year. But these Bullets seem to thrive on adversity; despite constant injury problems since the middle of January, they have on 19 of their last 28.
Of course, the inept Jazz helped a great deal. This is a struggling team whose coach, Elgin Baylor, might not have his job after the season despite a recent two-year extension on his contract. And the search is on for a general manager to rebuild the organization.
That the club has problems was evident in this game. As soon as they fell behind in the third quarter, the players gave up, tossing away easy passes, missing dunks, refusing to hustle on defense and forgetting all about teamwork.
"Can you imagine eight players blowing out a team on its home court, even if it is New Orleans?" asked Greg Ballard, who had 16 points and 10 rebounds in place of Dandridge despite a still ailing knee.
But even with a diminished squad, the Bullets played extremely well for three periods. The Jazz was behind by only two points early in the third before Washington exploded, hitting 15 of 20 shots and running off two streaks of eight straight points to grab a 93-71 lead.
Hayes had nine points, Charles Johnson eight and Ballard and Tom Henderson six apiece during that stretch, which ended with Kelley tossing a ball against the scorer's table in disgust. The Bullets shot 62 percent during the quarter.
Johnson finishde with 19 points, 12 in the second half. Hayes and Unseld combined for 28 rebounds, helping the Bullets to a 57-44 advantage in that department.
Maybe, said Motta, the players were inspired by Assistant Coach Bernie Bickerstaff's pregame scouting report. "All he wrote on the board," said Motta, "was, 'The Bullets Are Tough; Go Get 'em.'"