The unpredictable Bullets blew an 18-point fourth-quarter lead but salvaged the opening game of the NBA championship series yesterday when Larry Wright, sent to the foul line on a highly disputed call, sank two free throws with no time left on the clock.
Washington's incredible 99-97 triumph over Seattle before an emotionally drained capacity crowd at Capital Centre was shrouded with controversy.
The SuperSonics protested vehemently that Wright, slicing down the middle on a layup, was not fouled by Dennis Johnson and that the contest should have gone into overtime.
But refree Ed Rush, stationed under the basket, ruled that "the guy (Wright) was shooting the ball and he (johnson) got him on the arm just like any other foul."
Repeated viewing of taped replays indicated that Johnson made contact both with Wright's body and arm. Johnson said he though he jumped straight up and "I thought I hit the ball but the ref said I fouled."
Wright also believed Johnson had goaltended on the play "and I got hit with the body when he went up to block the shot. I would have made the shot if he hadn't fouled me."
Instead, Wright, who had hit all 19 of his playoff free throws, now had to step to the line and make at least one of three attempts to break a tie and win the game for his teams, which had staggered down the stretch like a punch-drunk heavyweight after his 12 field goals shot them far ahead.
"I didn't want to be a goat," Wright said. "I wouldn't have been able to go back hom to Monroe, La., and to my school (Grambling) if I missed three in a row. I thought about the people in Capital Centre and on national television and at home.
"I didn't know at first he had called a foul. I thought it was goaltending when I heard the whistle. But Elvin (Hayes) pointed to the line and told me to knock them in. That's when the butterflies set in ."
With the Sonics screaming at Rush along the sidelines, Wright hit the back rim on his first attempt. The second went through cleanly and Wright, who had done so much to stake Washington to its big lead, could raise his fist in triumph. He started to walk away, then realized he had final try. He dropped it in for an unneeded extra point.
Wright totaled 26 points, all in the last three quarters,making 12 of 18 shots - 10 of his first 12.
His marvelous marksmanship, coupled with a crisp running game, scoring from Bob Dandridge (23 points) and Kevin Grevey (19) and domination of the boards (55-41), had put the Bullets on the verge of turning the game into a rout, 91-73, with 9:32 left.
This had been the best the Bullets had played since the playoffs started. And Seattle was helping, especially at the foul line, where the Sonics eventually made only 11 of 23 attempts.
But just as in last year's championship opener between these clubs at Seattle, when Washington jumped to a 19-point third-quarter lead only to lose, the Sonics weren't about to start thinking about Thursday night's second game in the Centre.
Rallied by the daredevil drives of guard Gus Williams, who garnered 14 of his 32 points in the last seven minutes, Seattle applied full-court pressure on the Bullets and watched as their opponents folded piece by piece.
Washington missed 13 of its last 15 shots and committed seven turnovers. The bullets became deliberate, running the shot clock down to a dangerous few seconds on almost every possession and then forcing up a hurried attempt. It was a classic lesson by an NBA team in how to ditch a comfortable lead.
"It's natural," Coach Dick Motta said. "We started playing the clock way too early, we took bad shots, we did a lot of things wrong.
"You want that championship so badly that you almost begin wishing the seconds off the clock instead of playing your game. Why change what you were doing right? You shouldn't but you do."
Twice the Sonics ran off 10-0 streaks, the first cutting the Bullet lead to 91-83, the second reducing the edge to 96-95 with 49 seconds left.
Williams was everywhere during the surge, pulling up for jumpers, racing in for fast-break layups, harassing ball-handlers on defense. Only Wright's 10 points through the middle stages of the quarter had kept Washington alive, but now the Bullets were gasping. They had gone three minutes without a point, with Wright on the bench much of the stretch.
That scoring void was ended when Grevey made one of two free throws with 43 seconds remaining after being hacked at midcourt by Williams. That gave the bullets a 97.95 lead.
Motta thought Grevey had been fouled in the back court, which would have given him three tries to make two shots. Television replays by CBS appeared to back up Motta's contention.
Seattle's John Johnson then tossed up a weird-looking 12-foot jumper that didn't come close. But Dennis Johnson grabbed the rebound and popped the shot for Seattle's first tie since early in the second period.
With 25 seconds left, the Bullets elected not to take a timeout. Instead, Dandridge was supposed to produce the kind of shot that had won the seventh game against San Antonio Friday night.
Seattle covered Dandridge well, forcing him to pass to Tom Henderson, whose eight-foot one-hander slammed off the backboard and rim, then off the backboard and rim, then off the hands of Seattle's Lonnie Shelton and out of bounds under the basket.
Now Washington called time with five seconds left. Wright was sent back in for Henderson and Dandridge was instructed to come off screens set by Wright and Hayes but Dennis Johnson jumped out and cut off that play.
Wright wound up with the ball on the left baseline and he immediately went with a jumper. Williams blocked it. Sonic center Jack Sikma, couldn't control the ball, it rolled out of bounds and the Bullets had possession again with two seconds on the clock.
"The players are supposed to go to areas and then they have total freedom to decide what to do in that situation," Motta said. "I don't like to risk making things so rote that it takes them out of the game.
"I hate to dwell on lombardi but we want them to cut to daylight, to cut away from pressure."
Dandridge, who was the closest Bullet to the ball when it went over the end line, had to take it out of bounds under league rules instead of Wes Unseld, who normally would get the assignment. Unseld and Hayes lined up along the left side of the foul lane while Wright positioned himself at the head of the key.
"I caught Larry's eye and motioned to him with my head ot cut down the middle," Dandridge related. "When I took it out of bounds, I was looking for the guy who would be open. I could see Elvin and Wes congested on the other side and the middle looked open.
"We were jusdtt fortunate that we made eye contact."
To follow Dandridge's instructions, Wright first had to shake his defender, Williams. He took care of that problem by faking left toward Unseld and Hayes.
"He beat me clean," Williams said.
Wright now had a step on the Sonic guard. He raced down the middle and Dandridge hit him with the pass. Dennis Johnson, covering Grevey in the right corner, quickly dropped off and leaped to try to stop the flying Wright.
The ball banged off the board and the rim and fell off. Rush blew his whistle and Johnson began jumping, screaming while the Sonic Bench erupted.
"The ball was in Sikma's hands before he blew the whistle," said Seattle Coach Lenny Wilkens. "That would indicate the clock had expired. You can see anything you want to see in the play. I didn't see any contact but that's why there are officials out there.
"With five seconds left, we expected them to go to Dandridge. With two seconds left, we wanted them to go outside, not inside. In ouu anxiety to give some defensive help, we went too far. He shouldn't have been free down the middle."
Wright felt the fact that Dandridge took the ball out unsettled Seattle.
"They never got seton their defense," he said. "They were expecting him to shoot it. They didn't know what to look for."
Until their rally, the Sonics had lived mostly off Bullet turnovers and blocked shots (11) for their points. Wilkens admitted his club's lack of movement on offense, plus its miserable foul shooting, created the huge deficit.
Seattle also was the first team in the playoffs to play a more standard man-to-man defense on the Bullets. Although the Sonics double-teamed Washington's forwards with their guards, they did not execute that tactic nearly as well or as frequently as Atlanta or San Antonio. That allowed Hayes and Dandridge to maneuver more freely in the low post.
But Hayes was able to put in just six of attempts and his 14 points were below his playoff norm. His lack of production was offset by Sikma's comparable six-of-14 accuracy (for 12 points).
Washington benefited from better-than-normal output from the back court, especially Wright and Grevey. And reserve center Dave Corzine turned in a creditable 14 minutes, collaring seven firs-half rebounds to lead everybody at intemission.
But the Sonics voiced confidence their comeback would be significant for the rest of the series.
"If we play our pressure defense, then there is no way this team will beat us," veteran Paul Silas said. "If we can come from 18 down in this one things will different if we play that way the whole game." CAPTION: Picture 1, Sonics' Dennis Johnson (24) fouls Bullet Larry Wright who made two free throws for 99-97 win. By Richard Darcey-The Washington Post; Picture 2, With the score tied at 97, the clock at zero and having missed his first free throw, Larry Wright lets go the second shot. It swished through the net to give the Bullets Game 1. By Richard Darcy - The Washington Post; Picture 3, Sonic guard Dennis Johnson twists a layup past forward Greg Ballard to cut the Bullets' end 97-95. Photos by Richard Darcey - The Washington Post; Picture 4, Bullet rookie Dave Corzine takes rebound away form Jack Sikma of Sonics. Corzine nabbed seven.; Picture 5, At least one call did not please Coach Dick Motta.