In their most embarrassing performance of the season, the Washington Bullets were outhustled, outshot and outplayed by the San Antonio Spurs last night, 118-97, at Capital Centre.
Washington's humiliation in this opening game of the NBA Eastern Conference championship series was compounded by the loss to injuries of two key substitutes.
Mitch Kupchak, with recurring back spasms, did not suit up and is not expected to play at all in the series, which resumes here Sunday afternoon. Larry Wright severely sprained his left ankle in the fourth quarter and had his foot placed in a cast. His participation in the rest of the best-of-seven round is questionable.
The problem that plagued Washington throughout its semifinal series against Atlanta - poor guard play - continued last night despite the Bullets' hopes that a faster tempo would bring the back court out of its shooting slump.
Instead, the guards were a horrible 10 of 39 from the field. They shot so badly the Spurs were able to sag and cut off Washington's inside game, limiting Elvin Hayes and Bobby Dandridge to 22 points the last half.
San Antonio's back court, however, had little trouble piling up points. Incomparable George Gervin twisted and turned for 34 points and James Silas added 28.
Add forward Larry Kenon's 24 points and 21 rebounds and San Antonio might have had more trouble beating its second team than it did overcoming Washington. It was the Spurs' first triumph at the Centre after nine straight defeats.
"We could have been beaten by 40," said Bullet Coach Dick Motta. "It was an ugly, dead game. Our backs are to the wall and I don't know how we will handle it Sunday."
About the only thing the Bullets did well in the game was rebound, at least in the first half. They held a 59-49 advantage on the boards but couldn't come up with many loose balls after intermission. It got so bad that the sellout crowd, which had cheered wildly at the start booed vigorously in the fourth quarter before heading home early.
Most of the fans' anger was directed at the back court. Kevin Grevey was only one of nine and played just seven minutes of the second half. Tom Henderson made two of seven shots while Charles Johnson and Wright both were two of five. Phil Chenier could hit only three of 13.
"I could see it on their (the Bullet guards") faces," said Silas, a star in the old American Basketball Association who was used sparingly in the playoffs last year because of a bad knee.
"They looked so tight. They were trying to force their shots. They are shooting so bad you know you have to take the inside game away from them. That's what we did.
"They were so far out of it, they gave us confidence."
Dandridge (25 points) and Hayes (22 points, 20 rebounds) were fortunate to score as much as they did, once the Spurs found out they could triple-team them every time they touched the ball.
"I couldn't even turn when I got the ball," said Hayes, who took only two shots in the third period. "We need some outside shooting, but it was just one of those games. We aren't going to panic. I think we can straighten it out. These guards are too good to let this go on for long."
But the Washington back court shouldn't get all the blame for the loss. The starting front court contributed 13 of the Bullets' 25 turnovers San Antonio had 11) and hardly anyone appeared to be hustling on defense once the Spurs went well ahead in the second half.
To make the loss even more embarrassing for the Bullets, San Antonio was coming off a difficult seven-game triumph over Philadelphia and had just one day's rest. And Coach Doug Moe decided to slow down the tempo in the first half "because I thought we had to struggle."
But when he found the Spurs could dash around the court with ease, he had his team opened up full throttle. They used their quickness and accurate shooting to ruin any thoughts the Bullets had of controlling the pace of the game.
"Maybe we will have to go to different offensive patterns," said Dandridge. "Their gambling defense hasn't hurt us before, but we haven't tried to pass in the lanes before and it hurt us.
"Fatigue certainly comes into play. We've got to get contributions from everyone. We can't go down low as much unless we can score some from the outside."
The Bullets, who never seem to make things easy for themselves in the playoffs, stayed close until midway through the third period.
Then the Spurs outscored them, 23-9, to close out the quarter with a 13-point lead. Washington helped by committing five turnovers, but San Antonio really didn't need help.All five players on the spurt were scoring, finding the open man every time the Bullets tried to double-team.
Motta, getting more frustrated by the moment, angerly called a couple of timeouts to settle down his beleaguered players, but he couldn't find a way to stop Gervin and Silas.
Gervin always scores well against the Bullets and now Silas, who is a deadly jump shooter from the top of the key, is becoming a major headache. During one stretch, he made 10 of 11 shots and missed only six of 18 for the game.
In one sequence, San Antonio got five shots before Mike Green finally put in a rebound. "Come on and hustle," Motta screamed, but his players didn't respond.
The Bullets had hoped to make the San Antonio guards play some defense. But Gervin and Silas hardly had to work when Washington had the ball, so they could put their energy to efficient use at the other end.
And Washington had expected to be outscored in the back court, but not by 68-26.
"We'd rather get beat from the outside," said Moe. "You've got to take a chance somewhere. Their guards just missed some shots, but we had some help running at the guy shooting."
Wright, who had been in Bullets' most effective guard in the game, crashed into Gervin 30 seconds into the final quarter. He sprawled on the floor and quickly was taken to the locker room to be examined by Dr. Stanford Lavine, the team physician. X-rays will be taken this morning.
"We seem to do things the hard way," Unseld said of the Bullets' inability to protect their home-court advantage in playoffs. "I'm surprised that it happened, I'm surprised the way we played. But I'm also not surprised by the outcome, considering the way we played.
"We didn't have a total game from anyone. We weren't scoring from anywhere. You can't win that way." CAPTION: Picture 1, Tom Henderson, left, and Phil Chenier lift injured Larry Wright after Bullet guard injured his ankle in last period. By Richard Darcey - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Larry Kenon finishes off a fourth-quarter San Antonio fast break with a one-handed dunk. Wes Unseld has the best view. By Richard Darcey - The Washington Post