The Washington Bullets' victory over Utah Saturday night made their first extended road trip of the season a very successful one.
The 108-107 victory at the Salt Palace was the Bullets' third straight and got them to within two games of .500 at 18-20. That is the closest they have been to breaking even since Dec. 22.
"We should have won all four of the games," said Bernie Bickerstaff, assistant coach.
Indeed, the Bullets could have, if not should have.
The Bullets started the four-game western trip New Year's night in Portland against the Trail Blazers. They appeared to have the game under control, heading into the fourth quarter with a seemingly comfortable 82-69 lead.
Then Portland threw a full court zone press at the Bullets, who lost their poise, the lead and the game 109-99.
Washington bounced back at the Kingdome the next night, however, beating the defending NBA champion Seattle SuperSonics, 139-134, in double overtime, in what was perhaps their best all-around game of the season against a good team.
They then went to Oakland and easily beat the Golden State Warriors, 117-105, and then it was on to the Salt Palace to face the Jazz.
It was Coach Dick Motta's first courtside appearance in Utah since he coached at Weber State in the early 1960s.
Before the game, Motta was given a plaque commemorating his return and the 10,289 fans at the Salt Palace were very appreciative of the Bullets -- until they realized the Jazz had a chance to win the game.
In fact, it appeared that Utah had won it when Adrian Dantley made a 20-foot jump shot with one second left on the clock, giving the Jazz a 107-105 lead.
The Bullets came up with a miracle finish, however, when Greg Ballard took Wes Unseld's in-bounds pass at midcourt after a timeout and launched a 30-foot three-point shot that swished in as the horn was sounding.
The Jazz players, coaches and fans ranted and raved that the basket had come too late, but official Lee Jones ruled it a good shot.
"The clock should have run out after my shot," said Dantley, who was held to 16 points by Elvin Hayes, 15 under his average.
Terry Furlow picked up the slack, however, equalling his career high with 37 points, including three three-point goals.
Ballard has been the Bullets' best three-point field-goal shooter. He had made six of 13 going into the game, most of them had been from the corners. He said it is easier from out front.
"I bobbled the ball when I got it because I was trying to make sure my feet were set and I was square to the basket," Ballard said. "That's the key with making those shots -- you have to set your feet and be square to the basket."
Ballard scored 16 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter.
There are number of reasons for the Bullets' recent success. One, is the return of Bob Dandridge, who missed the five games before the trip with an assortment of injuries. Playing as a reserve since his return he has made a big difference: He scored 13 points against Portland, 12 against Seattle, 20 against Golden State and 12 against Utah.
Ballard, as a starter the last nine games, has averaged 17.2 points.
The reserves have come through. After providing only 13 points in the loss at Portland, they have produced 45 points against Seattle, 55 against Golden State and 43 against Utah.
Larry Wright, Dandridge and Roger Phegley have given the Bullets an explosive reserve trio.
Wright followed his 16-point effort at Golden State with a season-high 25 points against Utah.
Wright got more playing time in the last two games because Kevin Grevey was stricken with flu in San Francisco and was sent home early.
Wright and Jim Cleamons combined for 34 points against the Warriors and 42 against the Jazz and they give the Bullet guards verstility when they are on the floor together.
Both are playmakers who are also good shooters and their quickness enable them to press on defense as well.
The Bullets will have until Wednesday to savor their recent success when they face the mighty Los Angeles Lakers with Magic Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar at Capital Centre.