The Washington Bullets and Atlanta Hawks continued to prove the merits of the NBA's home court advantage last night at Capital Centre. Less than one week after being blown out by 18 points down in Dixie, the Bullets returned the favor with a 125-111 victory.
The teams have split the four games they've played this season, with the Bullets' margin of victory last night the lowest in the series. In making a 32-point swing from last Saturday's 119-101 defeat in Atlanta, the Bullets beat the Hawks at their own game, namely, running the basketball.
The runningest Bullet was Gus Williams, who was nearly flawless in scoring 37 points to go along with 11 assists and six rebounds. The point total matched a season high set on Nov. 2 against Milwaukee. The assist and rebound totals were season highs.
All of Washington's starters scored in double figures, with Jeff Malone, Williams' running mate at guard, scoring 27. Cliff Robinson had 17 points and Greg Ballard and Jeff Ruland each added 16. Ruland had 10 rebounds as the Bullets outrebounded their opponents, 41-40 -- the first time in nine games that they held that statistical edge at the end of play.
"It was a near-perfect game for us," said the Bullets' coach, Gene Shue. "It was incredible, We were doing everything, everyone was contributing."
The game was incredible in that it had a little something for everyone. Besides the Bullets' shooting, there was also a fine second half defensive effort on Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins. After dazzling the crowd and setting a Capital Centre record with 30 first-half points, Wilkins was held to one basket and two free throws.
In addition, there was a fight early in the fourth quarter in which both participants -- Ruland and the Hawks' Scott Hastings -- were ejected. Neither player chose to comment on the incident after the game, but Atlanta Coach Mike Fratello saw the altercation as one of two key points in the game.
That was because at the same time that the fight was breaking loose, at the 10:24 mark of the period, a three-point shot by Williams was going through the hoop, giving the Bullets a 103-90 lead and staving off the makings of an Atlanta rally.
"It really was a back-breaker because it pushed things back their way," said Fratello.
At the start of the game, both teams played as if the first one that missed would lose. Halfway through the first period, each team had a 73 percent mark from the field. At the end of the period, Washington led 36-35, thanks to 16 points by Williams, including three three-point shots. He later added another, going four for four in three-pointers.
But while Williams cooled off in the second period, Wilkins didn't. Seventh in the league in scoring at 26.1 points per game going into the contest, the forward matched his 15 first-quarter points with the same amount in the second.
That's where Fratello's second key came into play. Down, 65-61, at the half, the Bullets called time at 10:23 of the second quarter, trailing, 68-63. After the break in action, Washington scored 10 straight points to take a 73-68 lead and never looked back.
"If any one minute (actually 1:37) could be critical, that was it," said Fratello. "We were doing things but weren't accomplishing anything on the scoreboard. We could've moved up by eight or 10 points but didn't."
Shue agreed. "The first half of the game, the pace was much too fast for us," he said. "What we wanted to do was control the game's tempo, which was exactly what we did."
That, along with controlling Wilkins. "Our defense was much sharper in the second half," said Shue. "And he might not have played as aggressively as he did in the first half."
"I don't think it was so much that as the sagging that they did after halftime," countered Wilkins. "I just didn't get in position to take the same kind of shots as I had in the first half." Indeed, in the final two quarters, he took six shots.
And, as Wilkins' production decreased, Williams' rose, completed by an 11-point fourth quarter that included his fourth three-pointer of the game. Asked if the fast pace suited his style, he replied, "Not just my style but the Bullets' style. Everybody got involved and we did what we wanted to do."