The Bullets kept alive their chances of salvaging the Eastern Conference championship by producing yesterday what Coach Dick Motta termed "our best game since the play-offs started."
But Washington's 107-103 triumph over San Antonio before a sellout crowd at Capital Centre did not come without an intense struggle on the Bullets' part.
They twice had large second-half leads, topping off at 16 points early in the fourth period, yet needed five points each from Elvin Hayes and Tom Henderson in the final 4 1/2 minutes to hold off the Spurs and send the teams to San Antonio for Game 6 Wednesday night. The Spurs lead, 3-2, in the best-of-seven series.
"They got good games from people who haven't been playing that well," said Spur forward Coby Dietrick. "That got them over the hump, but just barely."
The Bullets knew they had to produce more scoring from their guards if they were to survive. Henderson, with 16 points and nine assists, and Kevin Grevey, with 23 points, including 14 in the second half, fulfilled that goal.
Grevey also covered Spur guard George Gervin extensively for the first time in the round. And the 6-foot-5 Bullet did a decent job for three periods before the 6-7 Ice Man, who went almost 28 minutes (part of it on the bench) without scoring during the middle part of the game, broke loose in the fourth quarter to finish with 28 points for the day.
Gervin, who had 20 points in the third period of Game 4 Friday night, registered 15 in the final 12 minutes yesterday, including his team's next seven after San Antonio had closed the Bullet lead to four points.
Five of those points came when Motta put forward Bobby Dandridge on him for the first time in the series, after Grevey fouled out with 3:31 to play.
"That move sure made a lot of difference in the game," Motta said sarcastrically. "All Gervin did was hit a few and defy all the odds and all the coaching I was doing."
Fortunately for Motta and his team down the stretch, Hayes, who totaled 24 points and 22 rebounds, also was defying the defensive odds with his uncanny turnaround jumper. Henderson was finally able to take advantage of San Antonio's double-teaming defense to make some wide-open layups.
Although San Antonio was quick to point out how much Washington had to scratch despite knowing this was a must-win game, Motta dismissed such talk as inconsequential. Instead, he said the pressure now is on the Spurs.
"This next game will be the first time they have had the pressure on them the whole series," he said. "They know they have to win. They don't want to come up here for Game 7 because there is no way they will beat us here.
"It's just a shame we haven't hustled and played that hard the whole series. It was the most intense we've been for a whole game. We were intense for the seventh game against Atlanta, but we played better today. We were looser.
"We are just fortunate to have the opportunity to still win this series, the way we've played. We were in worse shape last year when we were down, 2-1, to Seattle heading out there for two games. We did okay then."
There was some reason for Motta's optimism. Grevey, plagued almost from the start of the playoffs by horrible shooting, put in the majority of his open jump shots today, taking advantage of San Antonio's sagging tactics.
And Henderson, who missed at least six layups in Game 4, made all six of his field goals yesterday off drives, mostly by slicing to the basket and catching wide-open passes while his defender double-teamed Dandridge or Hayes.
"Those shots have been there the whole series, the open jumpers and the layups," Motta said. "We just haven't been hitting them. It's that simple."
Henderson admitted he made better efforts to get to the basket "because I have to make them pay for them double-teaming Elvin and Bobby. I'm trying to fill the spot. When they try to double up, I have to take advantage of it."
The Bullets also got a big life from reserve Greg Ballard, who continued his fine play in the series (he is shooting 71 percent from the field) with 15 points, including 10 in the second period, and seven rebounds.
It was Ballard's hustling effort in the second quarter that got Washington untracked and out to a 53-48 halftime lead. But the Spurs felt confident at that juncture, considering they shot 33 percent in the period, enjoyed only two points from Gervin and Larry Kenon because of foul problems and produced their lowest quarter production of the round (18).
The Spurs had been running well, ripping off 10 fast breaks in the half while catching Washington loafing on transition plays. The Bullets were being outrun so obviously that the crowd booed them heavily midway through the period.
The catcalls turned to cheers in the third quarter.
Baskets by Dandridge, Hayes and Wes Unseld to open the second half moved the Bullets out front by 10. San Antonio closed to three points before Kenon picked up his fifth foul and Washington unleashed a 10-2 spurt that included layups by Dandridge, Henderson and Grevey and a wide-open 18-footer from Charles Johnson.
"We went haywire a bit and broke down in the third," said San Antonio Coach Doug Moe. "We lost our composure."
He also lost Gervin's offense. Grevey was bumping and overplaying the Ice Man and the Spur guard missed five shots, including four layups, of sorts, during the 12 minutes. And he wasn't having much luck defensively against Gravey, who went four for five from the floor.
"That's the way you have to handle Gervin," Dandridge said. "You have to make him play both ends of the court. I thought Kevin did an excellent job at it."
When Grevey popped in a 16-footer against Gervin's phantom defense to begin the fourth quarter with an 86-70 lead, it appeared San Antonio was ready to start packing.
But Kenon wasn't ready to give up. He ran in six straight points to start a 20-8 Spur surge that unnerved the Centre fans: 92-88 with 5:31 to play. In that outburst, Gervin finally sank a jumper, his first field goal since the opening minutes of the second period.
The Bullets had stopped shooting well, making only four of their first 13 attempts in the quarter. Hayes, who opened with 14 points in the first quarter, was not getting the ball at his favorite spot to the left of the basket.
Both trends changed moments later. With the Spurs trailing, 96-92, Hayes took a feed from Henderson and hit a layup. But Grevey picked up his sixth foul and San Antonio center Bill Paultz swished a foul-line jumper.
Hayes answered with a tough turnaround shot over Mark Olberding, only to see Gervin drive the middle and toss up a spectacular finger-roll shot that barely cleared the leaping Hayes and tumbled into the basket.
Dandridge then found Henderson, wide open under the basket, as he had been so often, with a fine pass and Henderson put it in for a 102-96 margin.
The Spurs called time with 2:01 left and Motta decided to switch Dandridge to the back court so he could take on Gervin while Ballard moved to forward against Kenon.
Gervin immediately tested the tactic with a long forced shot.Olberding got the rebound, returned the ball to Gervin and he drove through the defense for a layup, cutting the lead to 102-98.
Hayes could not make a 10-footer in the middle of the lane but the Spurs failed on two Kenon shots and Gervin picked up his fifth foul on a rebound. This was the first game in which he had been in foul trouble, a Bullet objective since the opener.
Then on what was probably the key play of the contest, Henderson flipped the ball to Ballard, cut to the basket, caught a return pass and deposited it for a 104-98 bulge with 54 seconds to go.
Gervin prevented any celebrating by flipping in a turning, fallaway 15-footer, but the Spurs now had to foul and Hayes, Ballard and Henderson sank on free throw apiece in the last 30 seconds to wrap up the triumph.
"I felt a little hesitant taking any outside shots," Henderson said, "but I'm not paid to shoot. I don't have one play that says 'Henderson.' Today, they were leaving me and they were pushing out our offense and there was a big gap (to the basket). Now there is a lot of pressure on them. We're going to bring it back (to Washington) Friday."
But Moe was as confident his team wouldn't need more than six games to close out the defending NBA champs.
"I like the way we are playing," he said. "In situations like this, you can't expect to play great all the time.
"We kept after it today and they had to struggle to beat us. Now all we have to do is go home and keep working." CAPTION: Picture 1, Bullets play well at both ends of court against the Spurs: Elvin Hayes stuffs, leaving Mike Green in lurch; Picture 2, Bobby Dandridge blocks George Gervin's attempt; Picture 3, Kevin Grevey, blocked by Mark Olberding, lays off pass to dandridge. Photos by Richard Darcey-The Washington Post