Washington clinched a tie for the Atlantic Division title last night when Elvin Hayes and the seven other healthy Bullets turned a fading-season NBA game into a delightful evening of entertainment.
Lacking the luxury of their usually deep bench because of injuries to Bob Dandridge, Kevin Grevey and Mitch Kupchak, the Bullets knew they had to play intelligently. They fulfilled that goal by hustling past the New York Knicks, 119-106, with the kind of teamwork that usually characterizes their best performances.
The smallest crowd in the past 13 home gams, 9,633, got their money's worth just by watching the indestructible Hayes, who showed succinctly whcy he is one of the league's stars.
Hayes toyed with his opponents, tossing in 33 points, pulling down 22 rebounds, blocking five shots and, in his spare moments, handing off three assists.
That production alone nearly over-whelmed the Knicks, But toss in a career-high 15 points and nine rebounds by rookie Dave Corzine, 20 points from the outside-shooting Charles Johnson and a combined 33 points from Larry Wright and Greg Ballard and New York hardly could put up a fight.
With 11, games left, Washington, with a 49-22 record, has a 10 1/2-game lead over Philadelphia. Thus, the Bullets' first division title since the 1974-75 season, when they won 60 games, is one decision away.
This was the Bullets' second victory in two nights with just an eight-man squad. Obviously, New Orleans and New York are not title contenders, but Washington still had to make up for the absence of 51 points, the combined averages of Dandridge, Grevey and Kupchak. And the club had to fly half of yesterday to get home from Louisiana.
But they overcame their manpower problems with drive, smart passing, dominating rebounding and good execution. To win, they knew they had to go inside to their strengths and they did that, continually getting the ball into the hands of Hayes, Unseld Ballard and Corzine down low.
The deep talent that General Manager Bob Ferry has assmebled the last few seasons here was evident the last two nights.
Corzine, for example, blocked two shots by Knick center Marvin Webster and delivered four offensive-rebound baskets just in the first half, a sharp effort from one who has had inconsistent playing time all season.
And Ballard, whom Ferry feets will average 15 points and about 12 rebounds when he becomes a starter, shot the team off to a quick start by scoring 11 first-quarter points, almost all on power moves. Johnson then refused to let the Knicks rally in the third period when he made six of seven shots, mostly from 20 feet and beyond.
"There is no mystery to what we have done the last two games," said Wes Unseld, who had 11 points and 11 rebounds. "We had to play intelligently to win, and we had to get it inside to win. So we were smart - we went to our strengths. But remember, these weren't the best opponents in the world."
The game was decided by three segments.
The first was midway through the opening quarter when the Bullets, shooting 56 percent and getting nine points from Ballard, burst to a 25-15 lead.
Typical of their play at this juncture was a basket by Ballard that gave them the 10-point spread. Johnson missed a shot but batted the rebound high. Unseld grabbed it and passed to Johnson, who missed another jumper. But Ballard crashed the board, outjumping two Knicks, and made a tap-in.
The second key sequence was at the beginning of the second quarter. The Knicks went almost 3 1/2 minutes without scoring and the Bullets responded with an 11-point splurge that included five Corzine points. Now the margin was up to 20.
But New York rallied just before the half and cut the lead to 12 going into the locker room. When it dropped to eight early in the third, it appeared fatigue might finally have caught up with Washington.
Hayes, who had every right to be tired after a 17-point, 14-rebound first half, then came up with a play worthy of someone just coming off the bench. Johnson knocked a rebound away from Joe Meriweather at the top of the key and connected with Hayes on a long pass; the Bullet forward, who had sprinted the length of the court, dunked it savagely.
That ignited another Washington spurt. A layup by Ballard, a jumper by Tom Henderson, two baskets by Johnson and a couple of Corzine foul shots and the Knicks soon were behind again by 16. The lead grew to 23 in the fourth before garbage time set in.
"I usually don't look for my shot that much when I play," said an exhausted Corzine, who played 28 minutes. "But I figured I had to take up some of the scoring slack. I wasn't trying to get 30 or anything, but I guess what I contributed helped."
The Bullets next play at Detroit Friday and could get at least Kupchak back. He said he would test his sore back today to see if he could play. Dandridge said he would not go to Detroit and Grevey is out for at least a week and possibly the rest of the regular season. CAPTION: Picture 1,
Greg Ballard pulls an offensive rebound away from Marvin Webster of Knicks. Ballard relayed pass to Bullet teammate Dave Corzine (behind Webster), who laid in a basket.
By Richard Darcey -- The Washington Post; Picture 2,
Bullet guard Charles Johnson holds ice to cut mouth after he was hit in game with Knicks. Beside him sits injured Mitch Kupchak .
By Richard Darcey -- The Washington Post