The Bullets came away with perhaps their most meaningful victory of the season tonight when they made up a 20-point deficit, 14 in the fourth quarter, against the San Antonio Spurs and won, 112-110, on a running one-hander by Jeff Ruland with two seconds to play.
"Down by that many, on the road, having lost five in a row . . . We could have very easily quit out there, but we didn't," said a jubilant Coach Gene Shue. "This was a remarkable, remarkable performance by us."
"This victory shows the character of this team," said Greg Ballard. "We just stuck together and wouldn't give up."
The victory was as much a credit to Shue's coaching skills as it was to the fortitude of his players. Shue seemed to make the right moves at the right time, especially in the fourth period, such as calling for a three-point shot by Frank Johnson and putting center Rick Mahorn on George Gervin in the final minutes.
The Bullets also got big performances from seldom-used Jim Chones and Garry Witts.
Shue said he was tired of getting no production from guards Kevin Grevey or Don Collins (a total of 12 points), so he went to Witts midway through the third period. The rookie from Holy Cross responded with eight points, five rebounds and three assists, and appeared to come up with every loose ball. On defense, he more than held his own against Gervin, who scored 28 points in the first half and finished with 42.
With Witts teaming with Johnson, another rookie, in the Bullets' back court, the visitors pressed and hustled their way back into the game with one big play after another.
The Bullets opened the fourth quarter down, 93-79, but outscored the Spurs, 9-1, at the outset of the period.
Ballard had missed the last three games with a sprained right ankle, and then suffered a deep gash over his left eye in the first six minutes tonight after a three-way collision with Mahorn and San Antonio's Johnny Moore and had to sit out the rest of the half. Nonetheless, he scored 10 of the Bullets' team-high 24 points in the final period. His 18-footer as the 24-second clock expired cut the deficit to 106-103 with 2:30 remaining.
Gervin answered with a hook to get San Antonio's lead back to five points, but Johnson took over. When Shue called for a three-point shot, he calmly made one from 25 feet and the Bullets trailed by two with two minutes to play.
An offensive foul and two missed free throws by Gervin gave the Bullets the help they they needed down the stretch. Johnson darted down the lane and scored the tying basket and was fouled by George Johnson with 59 seconds left. He missed the ensuing free throw, however, and the Spurs called time.
That's when Shue put the 6-foot-9, 235-pound Mahorn on the 6-7, 180-pound Gervin.
Mahorn never let Gervin get close to the ball the rest of the game.
Mike Mitchell missed a jumper with pressure from Chones with 40 seconds left. Johnson got the long rebound and then made a 22-footer for a 110-108 Bullet lead with 19 seconds to play.
On the Spurs' next possession, with Gervin negated by Mahorn, Mitchell took another bad shot over Chones. The rebound bounced around before Chones grabbed it and was fouled by Mark Olberding.
Chones missed two free throws, however, and on the second miss, Ruland fouled Dave Corzine going for the rebound.
Corzine, the former Bullet, made both free throws to tie the score at 110 with six seconds left.
The Bullets called time and Shue set a play for Johnson. The Spurs' defense was ready for it, however, and Ballard was forced to pass inbounds to Ruland, who had Mitchell on him. Ruland caught the pass, turned to the basket with Mitchell guarding him closely, dribbled into the lane and put up a soft six-foot semihook.
"When I saw Frank was covered I just went to the ball," said Ruland. "Once I got it I knew there wasn't time to do anything but go to the basket."