Elvin Hayes said words that portend doom. With a little over four minutes to play tonight, Hayes missed a four-foot jump shot. He left it a foot short of the rim. A minute later, he went to his coach, Dick Motta, and said, "Dick, give Bobby the shooting side."
For the first time in memory, Hayes was hurt. On the bench earlier, he held an ice bag against his shooting hand's middle finger, which was jammed in Game 2. Normally an artist with a basketball in hand, Hayes tonight was a common laborer. He made only seven of 20 shots and only two successes were not layups. He made one of six free throws.
It defeat sometimes enlarges a man, tonight's 116-114 loss to San Antonio may have made Hayes truly heroic. Sending the ball to Bobby Dandridge, the other forward, was a wise and unselfish thing to do. Hayes simply took charge rebounding. Of his 23 rebounds, 11 came in the last quarter when he alone beat back San Antonio leapers who had bullied the Bullets all night.
Where the Bullets outrebounded San Antonio 57-34 in Game 2, their advantage tonight was only 59-55. With that improvement, the Spurs built a 14-point lead late in the game, a lead so big they could not choke it away no matter how much they tried.
They threw up homely shot after homely shot, all born of paralysis under pressure, and only the clock saved the Spurs, for time ran out before they could complete their flopperoo. Now ahead two games to one in the Eastern Conference championship round, now with Hayes hurting, now with another game here Friday, the Spurs would seem ready to end the Bullets' tenure as world champions.
It isn't necessarily so.
Even without Hayes scoring, the Bullets had a last-second shot to tie the game. And as good fortune rode with the Spurs all night, so did it on that last shot. Charlie Johnson's 18-footer caressed the rim ever so gently, bumping against the glass before hopping over the front edge.
San Antonio had all but blown a 14-point lead in the last eight minutes of a game in front of 15,000 screaming crazies in its own building. For seven all-important minutes, the Spurs made only one field goal - that on a questionable goaltending call against Hayes, who if he didn't want to shoot was a monster on the boards and defense.
If Hayes' injury augurs melancholy for the Bullets, their comeback means this serie is far from over. All season the Bullets have been the NBA's best road team, and the Spurs' hanging-by-their-fingertips victory tonight certainly did nothing to convince anyone they can repeat it Friday night in Game 4.
As in Game 1, the Spurs turned momentum their way in a brief, electric burst that lasted less than two minutes. In that one bright moment, they did everything they must to beat the Bullets. They played a sagging defense that cut off all passes inside, they ran the fast break quickly and authoritatively and they had scoring from unlikely spots.
From 91-88, the Spurs raced ahead by 10 points on a 19-footer by Coby Dietrick and a 10-footer by Mike Gale. Those guys score from anywhere about once a month.
Then, with about nine minutes to play came a chain of events that-much more than Hayes' request to give the ball to Dandridge - showed why the Spurs won tonight.
Wes Unseld, the Bullets' center, had the ball facing the basket. Small children in Dubuque know Unseld never shoots facing the basket. So the Spurs stood back, sagging into the lane to cut off Unseld's most dangerous offensive weapon, a quick pass.
Unseld could find no one to pass to. No one was moving to get open. So, with the 24-second clock running down, Unseld tried the last resort, 12-foot jump shot. The Spurs' Billy Paultz, a 6-foot-11 center who can't jump, blocked Unseld's shot.
But the ball came right to Unseld, who again looked to pass and again could find no one available. So again he shot the 12-footer and, yes, Paultz again batted it out of the air.
The second block started a lightning fast break that ended with James Silas laying in an easy two. Now the Spurs led, 100-88.
On a night the Bullets played poorly, the Spurs had used one two-minute stretch of good basketball to win the game. The margin looked like it might approach the 21 points of San Antonio's victory in Game 1. Clearly, the Bullets were beaten and beaten badly.
Only the Spurs didn't know it. For the next seven minutes, they could make only two field goals. They were choking. Though Hayes chose not to shoot, he was a rebounding demon. In the fourth quarter alone, he had 11 rebounds. His work gave the Bullets the ball often enough to win a game they should have lost by 20.
Two ugly shots thrown up by the Spurs' Silas, two shots that were symbols of San Antonio's late distress, were the keystones on which tonight's verdict finally turned.
On one, Hayes' rebound produced a basket that brought the Bullets within a point at 113-112.
On Silas' next ugly prayer shot-a twisting 17-footer hurled sidearm-the ball bounced away from every Bullet congregated in the lane. It sailed high to Spurs' Larry Kenon, who stuffed the rebound for a three-point lead with 32 seconds to play. CAPTION: Picture 1, Wes Unseld and Coby Dietrick engage in a shoving match after Unseld had wound up on top in struggle for loose ball. By Richard Darcev-The Washington Post; Picture 2, Coby Dietrick (left) and Larry Kenon force Elvin Hayes to miss shot. By Richard Darcev-The Washington Post