Wes Unseld, the Bullets' quiet man, made a loud impact on San Antonio yesterday, tossing around his 255 pounds for 26 points and 22 rebounds to pull his struggling team back into the NBA Eastern Conference championship playoffs.
Buoyed by Unseld's outstanding performance and ignited by a fierce halftime speech by Coach Dick Motta, the Bullets shook off a lackluster first half and sprinted to a 115-95 triumph before a sellout Capital Centre crowd of 19,035.
The best-of-seven series is tied at 1-1, but the Spurs still have the upper hand as they return home for the next two games Wednesday and Friday nights.
"We are in deep trouble going into the game," said Unseld, who made his last 12 shots after missing his first one. "Now we're just in trouble."
And victory did not come without another injury. On a day when Mitch Kupchak unexpectedly played despite a bad back, Elvin Hayes dislocated the middle finger of his shooting hand in the opening minute. The finger was placed back into its joint and Hayes played 39 minutes, scoring 15 points.
Although Washington hardly was overpowering, the Bullets at least got enough balance scoring, fast-break baskets and outside sharpshooting from guard Kevin Grevey to improve vastly on their opening-game showing.
They benefited from a crushing 57-34 rebounding advantage and a scrambling, double-teaming defense that forced San Antonio into a number of off-balance shots after intermission. And they were boosted by a verbal kick in the pants from Motta at halftime.
Motta, angered that his team did not come out in the first half with sufficient intensity, threw a piece of chalk against the blackboard and slammed the door to his office.
"When he finally came out," Grevey said, "he told us he wanted only three things: hustle, play with intensity and run their guards to hell. And we did it.
"If we hadn't won, they would have had to put up new plaster in the locker room. That's how mad he was."
What Motta saw in the second half was more pleasing.
Grevey, tormented by a prolonged shooting slump, made five of eight shots in the third period, including three from at least 15 feet, on the way to 18 points for the game. The guards were six of 12 in that quarter after a seven-for-22 first half, and their scoring seemed to ignite the entire team.
With Unseld grabbing off almost every missed San Antonio shot, Washington also found its running legs in the third. Urged on by their screaming fans, the Bullets moved from a 64-59 deficit to a 73-66 lead with a 14-2 outburst highlighted by three fast breaks.
"They got the fast-break opportunities when we started to miss," San Antonio Coach Doug Moe commented. "We weren't getting back. Guys were standing around. We didn't do a good job of keeping pressure on them. When their fast breaks worked, we weren't as tough in a set defense.
"Forget the rest of the game, if they didn't get the fast break and we didn't break down, it's still close. Otherwise, we had better control of the game than we did in the first one. They were struggling as much or more as in the last game.
"Hey, if they are going to wake up, they would have played that way from the start of the game."
That's what upset Motta. Instead of starting quickly, the Bullets played about as poorly in the first half as they did most of the game Friday night. They fell behind by nine points midway through the second quarter before closing to 53-49 at intermission.
Motta called the second half "doomsday for us," and his team finally began playing to the level.
Instead of relying only on the scoring of Hayes and Bobby Dandridge, who finished with 21, the Bullets got plenty of offensive help from the likes of Grevey, Tom Henderson (10 points), Charles Johnson (eight) and Greg Ballard (seven, all in the fourth).
And their defense swarmed over Spur guards George Gervin and James Silas, forcing forward Larry Kenon to carry the bulk of the offense.
"It was the first time we have played true team defense since the playoffs started," Dandridge said. "And it showed."
Gervin got only seven of his 22 points after intermission; Silas four of his 14. He missed all four of his shots in the third period and didn't score in the second half until 8:20 was left in the game.
For the Bullet guards, who were outscored, 68-26, in the opener, this was a day of at least partial redemption. Realizing that unless they improved, Washington was in dire peril, they totaled 42 points and shot 15 of 41 from the field, compared to 10 of 39 in Game 1.
For Grevey, in particular, there was joy.
He had made only six baskets in the last three playoff games and shot a miserable 32 of 89 over the first eight games. He again was struggling in the first half yesterday, and San Antonio virtually was letting him shoot unmolested from the perimeter.
"It would be sad," Motta said, "if we couldn't finally make the shots they were giving us. They were running at us a little but they were begging us to make them."
Grevey finally accepted the Spurs' generosity. He popped in two wide-open 17-footers early in the third quarter and the Bullet binge began. After 42 percent first-half marksmanship, the home side started firing accurately, banging in 28 of its last 51 attempts.
"I have to score 15 or 18 points a game for us to play winning basketball," Grevey ventured. "I had more open shots in this one game than I had in the Atlanta series. I knew they had to fall eventually."
Meanwhile, San Antoniohs marksmen turned cold. They appeared flustered by the Bullets' scrambling defense - the same kind the Sputs employ - and they unleashed plenty of loose shots for Unsled to control.
The Bullet captain jumped at the opportunity.
Overpowering Spur center Mike Green, who weighs 200 pounds, Unseld planted himself around the basket, sweeping off rebound after rebound that ignited Washington's running game.
Until then, he had carried the Bullets with his 10 offensive rebounds. He converted seven into baskets, seemingly scoring every time Washington appeared ready to crumble before the Spurs's early effective shooting.
"When San Antonio plays their helter-skelter defense and we execute properly, he should rebound like that," said Bullet Assistant Coach Bernie Bickerstaff. "When you are scrambling, you can't block out and control the boards. We can stand on the weak side and rebound all day."
Unseld, who had 19 rebounds in Game 1, was right in the middle of Washington's decisive outburst.
It begin with two Grevey foul shots. Then Dandridge swished an open 18-footer and Grevey finished off a fast break off an Unseld rebound by converting a Dandridge pass into a layup. A Silas miss led to an Unseld layup, set up by Henderson's dandy assist from the top of the key.
Unseld picked off a Kenon misfire and, when a Bullet fast break failed, the veteran center found himself with the ball, open at the top of the key. He never hesitated, sinking the jumper for his eighth straight basket without a miss.
San Antonio broke the 10-0 string with a Kenon field goal but Washington continued to surge, getting a fastbreak layup and a perimeter jumper from Dandridge to take control of the game.
The Spurs never got closer than seven in the fourth quarter, when Ballard, filling in for Hayes, contributed a foul shot and three baskets, two off rebounds, to discourage any San Antonio rally.
Once the Spurs went into a half-court press, the contest turned into a rout, Washington moving the ball crisply for a bushel of easy scores inside.
"We couldn't play them one on one like we were," Dandridge said." "They shoot too well for that. By helping out on defense, we threw them off a bit. We just have to hope Grevey can't adjust to scoring over three guys."
But Bill Paultz, San Antonio's starting center before aggravating a hamstring pull in the Philadelphia playoff series, pointed to Unseld as the Spurs' biggest problem.
"It's pretty simple what you need to do against him," he said, "but it's hard to do. We just can't let him get the low position to get the rebound."
Hard to do? Oppenents have been trying unsuccessfully to keep Unseld from that since he came into the league 11 years ago. CAPTION:
Picture 1, Two of the biggest moments of mighty 46-minute performance by Wes Unseld: the massive Bullet center sends up a 15-foot jump shot over Coby Dietrick; Picture 2, Washington leads, 69-66: 11th-year pro yanks an offensive rebound away from Spur Larry Kenon (35), to put it back up for a basket. Photos by Richard Darcey - The Washington Post; Picture 3, Bullet Greg Ballard beats Coby Dietrick and converts a layup after a pass from Charles Johnson; Picture 4, Kevin Grevey (right) scores from outside on jumper. By Richard Darney - The Washington Post