Phil Chenier gave the Bullets a $50,000 bonus tonight by providing the kind of scoring help in the back court the injury-riddled club so desperately needs over the final days of the regular season.
Chenier's 12 points in the fourth quarter provided Washington with an unexpected lift en route to a 127-108 victory over New Jersey that wrapped up the Eastern Conference title. And that championship puts the first $50,000 into the team's playoff pool, which could grow much, much larger before the season is finally over.
Coming off a disheartening loss to Philadelphia at home Tuesday night, the Bullets seemed ripe for a Net upset in this one. But Washington got off to a 17-point first-quarter lead behind 14 points from Charles Johnson and never allowed New Jersey to grab control of things.
This was a two-part contest. Half of it was dominated by guards from both teams. Johnson got into one of his unconscious outside shooting streaks in the first half and popped in seven of nine attempts, all from beyond 20 feet, while Larry Wright added 10 points on five of eight accuracy.
Then the Net's John Williamson offset their production with 17 points in the third period when New Jersey threatened to overcome the Bullets' quick bolt from the starting gate.
But Washington quickly put an end to the Net threat by working the ball inside early in the fourth quarter to Elvin Hayes and Bob Dandridge, who combined for 15 in the quarter. When New Jersey tried to counter by sagging around the two forwards, Chenier hit enough open jumpers to foil the strategy.
Chenier, who has been slowly improving since returning from back surgery, is the team's third guard as long as Tom Henderson and Kevin Grevey are sidelined. If he does not play well, Coach Dick Motta must go longer than he wants with both Wright and Johnson, who are more effective with periods of rest.
Against the 76ers, Chenier was not a factor and the guards tired badly in the final minutes. Tonight, both Wright and Johnson had four fould by early in the third quarter and Motta was forced to test Chenier. He responded with seven-of-11 marksmanship, three assists and 16 points.
" once I hit a few shots, the adrenalin started flowing," said Chenier. "I'm pressing a bit because I know they need help, but I felt good tonight. The last few games, I've felt good. It's just a matter of playing within a team concept and getting my good shots."
Chenier had plenty of scoring help. Dandridge finished with 28 points and five assists, Hayes 22 and nine rebounds, Johnson 20 and five assists and Wright 16, seven assists and, shades of David Thompson, 10 rebounds.
The Bullets tried to win this one in an uncharactristic fashion. Normally an inside oriented team on offense, they were forced to shoot long-range jumpers for three quarters, thanks to an effective, scrambling zone defense.
For awhile, Washington's perimeter marksmanship was enough to overwhelm New Jersey. The Bullets made 64 percent of their first-quarter shots, a marvelous display of accuracy considering only three of their 13 field goals came from inside 10 feet. They ran off a 17-1 spurt to end the period and threatened to turn the contest into a rout.
By the half, New Jersey had whittled the 17-point deficit to 11 and Motta spent some of the halftime break reminding his players about how to best attack a zone defense down low. Statistics backed up his concern: Twenty-two of Washington's 26 field goals in the opening 24 minutes were outside jump shots.
"We hadn't practiced against a zone in awhile and we were a little rusty," said Motta. "It took us a while to adjust. We spread it more in the second half and hit the open man."
The nets seemed on the verge of taking command in the third period. They worked constantly on the Bullet guards, pressing full court on defense and isolating Williamson and Ed Jordan against a smaller defender on offense. They drew to within six points a couple of times but that was to be their last hurrah.
Hayes, who had only seven points after 31 minutes, began calling for the ball down low so he could work against the smaller Tim Bassett. Dandridge floated around the key and Chenier was always poised to pop a jumper. The three combined for the Bullets' first 20 points of the fourth quarter and Washington made seven of its initial nine shots to break away to a 17-point bulge.
Williamson finished with 37 but had only four points in the fourth when the game was still in doubt. Forward Bernard King, with 11 of his 24 points in the last period, had to shoulder most of the scoring burden and he was not nearly enough.