The rapidly improving Washington Bullets have been winning games with their tenacious defense and last night they showed they can win with their offense, too.
On a night when the defense gave up its most points of the season, the Bullets rolled up their most points of the year to turn back Detroit, 129-125, before a nosiy crowd of 8,843 at Capital Centre.
Frank Johnson's eight straight points in the final minute paved the way for the Bullets' third straight victory since a two-point loss at Chicago. They have won six of their last nine and will try to extend their modest winning streak tonight (WDCA-20 at 8:30) in Milwaukee.
"Frank can deliver the big shot," Coach Gene Shue said. "He's got the outside shot and also has the quickness to get to the basket and draw the foul.
"I like the ball in the hands of a guard because he can always get a shot. Naturally, I'd rather get the ball inside, but teams have a way of cutting those plays off at the end, so you need someone who can make things happen and Frank can do that."
Although he is only a rookie, Johnson has the poise and confidence to be the Bullets' most effective player at the finish of close games. He scored six points in the last two minutes of a 106-102 victory Dec. 16 at Cleveland, then made a three-pointer against Boston two nights later that brought the Bullets within a point of victory.
The 6-foot-2 guard from Wake Forest sat out the 92-90 loss at Chicago and Shue later said the outcome might have been different if Johnson was in at the finish.
"Frank really does a good job at the end of games," said Greg Ballard, the Bullets' top scorer with 33 points. "He has a lot of confidence in his shot and he can take it to the basket and create something."
Johnson replaced John Lucas (12 assists) with the score tied at 107 and 5:58 to play. He immediately fed Ballard for a jumper, then made a free throw to put the Bullets in front, 110-109.
Ballard, who made 15 of 22 shots, scored from underneath, then sank a 17-footer before Detroit's John Long, who scored a career-high 41 points, took over. The Pistons' 6-5 guard made five free throws, then a three-point play to tie the game at 119 with 1:41 to play.
"We just didn't have anybody to stop him," Shue said of Long, who also made 13 of 15 foul shots.
Ballard broke the last tie with a pair of free throws. Then, after Isiah Thomas' miss, Johnson took charge.
The first-round draft choice made a 20-footer to boost the Bullets' lead to 123-119. After Kelly Tripucka (20 points) made one of two free throws, Johnson sank a foul shot with 33 seconds left.
Thomas, who finished with 20 points, lost control of the ball on a drive. Rick Mahorn grabbed the ball and threw a long pass to Johnson for a breakaway that gave the Bullets a 126-121 advantage. Thomas came back with a free throw, then Johnson drew a foul by Thomas and made two more from the foul line with 14 seconds left to make it 128-122.
Terry Tyler's three-pointer from the corner gave the Pistons a chance, but Johnson was fouled in the back court and sealed the victory with his ninth point of the period and 11th of the game.
It really shouldn't have been that close. After a sluggish start, when they fell behind, 22-14, the Bullets ran off 17 points to take a 41-28 lead in the opening minutes of the second quarter. Following a slight letdown, they scored the last eight points of the half to boost their halftime advantage to 68-57.
Mahorn had 13 rebounds and five blocked shots in addition to his 17 points . . . Kevin Grevey struggled through another poor performance, missing all eight of his shots before fouling out . . . Spencer Haywood had a season-high 23 points . . . Jeff Ruland contributed 16 points and 12 rebounds in 24 minutes.
Alex English scored 10 of his 32 points in the fourth period to help the Nuggets withstand a rally by visiting Boston, 128-123, last night in Denver.
In Indianapolis, Sidney Moncrief scored 24 points and Marques Johnson had a season-high 22 as Milwaukee won, 107-96.
George Gervin scored 46 points as San Antonio overcame the visitors from San Diego, 119-107.
Jay Vincent scored 17 of his career-high 41 points in the third quarter as host Dallas beat Kansas City, 104-92.
Campy Russell totaled 24 points and led New York on a key 14-2 fourth-quarter scoring spree in Chicago as the Knicks won, 111-108.
Dan Roundfield led all scorers with 35 points as Atlanta beat the Rockets, 102-93, at Houston.
Jamaal Wilkes scored 36 points in Inglewood, Calif., to pace the Los Angeles Lakers to their sixth straight victory, a 121-114 decision over the Utah Jazz.
Julius Erving scored 34 points, including 20 in the second half, and the Philadelphia 76ers held off Golden State in Oakland, 142-135.