Remarkable Bobby Dandridge, told by his coach "to go out there and win the damn game," fulfilled the order with a dramatic 15-foot jump shot that captured the National Basketball Association's Eastern Conference championship for the Washington Bullets, 107-105, last night.
Dandridge's shot over three San Antonio Spurs with eight seconds to play completed a comeback from what had been a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit and set off a wild celebration at sold-out Capital Centre.
Coach Dick Motta admitted afterward that, with 25 seconds remaining, he didn't call a set play for Dandrige. He merely told his star forward, who seems to thrive under pressure, to improvise.
So Dandridge did.
"I was just trying to run the clock to five seconds," he said. "(Tom) Henderson was supposed to tell me how much time was left. The crowd started hollering and I just went for the best shot I could. I wasn't fully conscious that there were eight seconds left."
The unpredictable Bullets now advance to the NBA final round against Seattle, with the first game Sunday afternoon in the Centre. But anything produced in that series will have a hard time rivaling last night's incredible happenings.
Even after Dandridge's pressure shot went in to give him 37 points for the game and 13 in the fourth quarter, the howling Bullet fans could not relax. San Antonio, which performed so heroically as an underdog, still had one more chance to send the game into overtime.
Guard James Silas drove down the left side of the lane against Henderson and went up with a short jumper. But Elvin Hayes came across the lane, skied into the air and slammed the shot away, into the hands of the Spurs' Larry Kenon.
Kenon tried to dribble toward the foul line but there was Dandridge again, slapping the ball away from the San Antonio forward. Gred Ballard finally picked up the ball and held onto it as the buzzer wen off and Bullet partisans stormed onto the floor.
"It was the same play we use, the forward comes out and sets a pick for the guard," said Hayes. "I saw the play develop. I felt if I could get to that side, I could block it. I timed it just right."
It was the seventh block for Hayes, who also scored 25 points and grabbed 15 rebounds.
The scene afterward was reminiscent of last year's victory celebration when the Bullets beat Philadelphia in six games for the conference title. Fans were jumping up and down, hugging one another, screaming at the top of their voices.
Hayes had set off that demonstration, too, when he blocked Lloyd Free's jump shot. But otherwise, this game differed considerably from that triumph over the 76ers.
Last night, the Bullets, trying to become only the third team in NBA history to win a series after trailing, 3-1, were on the verge of an early summer vacation before somehow finding their composure against their inspired opponents.
Even in defeat, San Antonio's George Gervin was magnificent. His 42 points, 24 in the second half, almost sufficed to salvage a game few expected the Spurs to win.
San Antonio fell short in only one area. The Spurs couldn't defense Dandridge, who remedied his recently erratic shooting touch to go 16 of 31 just in time to carry his cold-shooting teammates. He also had five assists and nine rebounds.
And, once again, it was Motta's decision to play Dandridge at guard and Ballard at forward during most of the last quarter that provided the winning edge.
Using that irregular lineup, the Bullets methodically cut into what, with 7:26 to play, had been a 94-85 Spur lead. Down the stretch, Washington outscored San Antonio, 22-9, with Dandridge putting in nine points and Ballard, playing well the entire round, adding seven.
Against Washington's relentless pressure, the Spurs gradually wilted, making only one field goal in the last 3 minutes and only four of its final 14 shots.
Gervin especially had trouble at the end. Guarded by that man Dandridge, who had 17 points in the fourth period of game 7 against Atlanta, the Ice Man connected on only one of five attempts. Ultimately, he let Silas take over the Spurs' offense.
There seemed little reason for the Centre crowd to be dreaming of a Bullet victory even with 3:05 to play and their team behind, 101-95.
But the Bullets, on a mediocre, 41 percent shooting night, suddenly got accurate.
Dandridge drew Mark Olbdering's sixth foul and the Washington forward sank one of two free throws. Moments later, Ballard, normally a fine free throw shooter, made only the third try of three from the line and it was 101-97, 2:20 to go.
After two Gervin foul shots, Ballard tipped in a Dandridge miss. Kenon, who notched only one field goal in the fourth quarter after scoring 21 points in the opening 26 minutes, failed on a jumper. San Antonio's Billy Paultz was called for fouling Unseld on the play and the Bullet center made both foul shots: 103-101, 1:36 left.
Then came the biggest call of the series. Paultz tried to set a pick on Henderson, who was guarding Silas. And referee John Vanak whistled Paultz for an illegal screen as Henderson tumbled emphatically to the floor.
The Bullets called time with 1:24 left and set up a play for Dandridge, who swept in for an elegant right-handed layup that tied the Spurs at 103 with 1:11 remaining.
By now there was bedlam in the Centre. The noise grew even louder when Gervin got the ball outside the key, drove by Dandridge and tried to loft a short shot over the leaping Hayes.
Gervin's lob hit high on the backboard and tumbled to the floor, where Dandridge gained possession. Ballard wound up with the ball at the other foul line, looking for an open teammate. When he couldn't find one, he started to drive, and Gervin fouled him.
Ballard stepped to the line with 36 seconds to go, "without thinking about my last misses. I didn't have the proper rhythm on the first two.
"I just concentrated harder. I just wanted to soften my touch a little. It was just like when I made two foul shots with one second left to beat UCLA at Pauley Pavilion."
Oregon alumnus Ballard swished both free throws for the Bullets' first lead since midway through the third quarter.
But San Antonio was not finished. Silas, another fine pressure player, turned and made a 15-footer over Henderson for a 105 tie with 25 seconds remaining.
The Bullets stopped the clock. According to Dandridge, Motta talked about one play, then another, but the instructions came down to getting the premier forward the basketball and letting him work for the game-winner.
Dandridge wasted little time. He dribbled to the corner. Silas, Kenon and Gervin tried to pick him up. But when he went up for the jumper, they all backed off and he was unmolested when he released the shot.
As the 19,035 customers went bonkers and Dandridge jumped with happiness, San Antonio called a final timeout with eight seconds to play.
"We knew they'd go either to Silas or Gervin," said Motta. "We wanted to force them to the middle and let Gevin play the shooter."
Silas never reached the middle. He made a strong move down the left side of the key, but Hayes swatted away the shot clearly and the Bullets soon could start thinking about winning a second straight NBA title.
Despite coming into this game with two wins in a row and considerable momentum, the Bullets played poorly until the final minutes. Up to then, they were constantly frustrated by the gunning Spurs, who turned to Gevin in the middle periods to gain control.
Gervin, who matched Dandridge's 16 of 31 shootings, scored 34 of his points in the second and third quarters to push San Antonio to a 82-76 lead entering the fourth.
The Bullets had managed to stay that close only because of Dandridge and Hayes, who had 37 of the team's 50 first-half points and 45 points through three periods. The guards were struggling to make open shots and Gervin was scoring almost at will.
About the only sign of life the Bullets showed was Larry Wright's third-quarter tussle with the 6-foot-8 Olberding.
The little guard had broken in for a layup, only to be blocked on the arm from behind by Olberding. Wright objected to the foul blow and charged at Olberding. The two exchanged a flurry of punches before being overwhelmed by players from both benches. Neither was ejected.
"I dreamed last night that we'd win by 16 or 18 points," Motta said. "This game ended the toughest two weeks of my life. But when we were down 3-1, I thought in the back of my mind we could come back and win it." CAPTION: Picture, George Gervin blocks a shot attempt by Kevin Grevey in the first Half. Larry Kenon (35) watches. by Richard Darcey-The Washington Post