The Washington Bullets discovered the bane of those unaccustomed to exercising in high altitude, hitting the wall in a 108-106 loss to the Nuggets at McNichols Arena, the final points being scored on a last-second shot by guard Mike Evans.
Lafayette Lever and Alex English each scored 24 points in the mile-high city, leading the Nuggets to victory. Gus Williams had 28 for Washington and Rick Mahorn had a season-high 25, along with 16 rebounds.
Although the Bullets faltered after leading by 17, Coach Gene Shue could find no fault with his team. In addition to the absence of Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson, Washington had to play with its starting front line in foul trouble most of the night. Tom McMillen fouled out, and Mahorn and Greg Ballard each had five personals.
"I think we played a terrific game," Shue said. "We wanted to control the tempo of the game and I think we did all night long. I just hate to see the other team have the ball with 24 seconds left on the clock."
Even though the Nuggets succeeded on that final possession, the Bullets still played it tough. Trying to take the ball down low to English, who was isolated on one side of the court against Darren Daye, Washington pulled a subtle jump switch, Mahorn moving over to play the forward.
From there, the Nuggets' play broke down and, with three seconds left, Calvin Natt drove down the middle, drawing a crowd, then passed off to Evans, who had just entered the game. Evans faked past Williams, then pushed his shot over Ballard.
"It makes Doug (Denver Coach Moe) look like a genius, putting me in there at the end like he did," Evans said, "but it was Calvin's move that enabled me to get open."
The Bullets just as easily could have won. Down by 102-96 with three minutes to play, they came back to tie the game. Williams made his third three-point shot of the game with 2:58 left. Then, after English, an 82 percent foul shooter, missed two fouls 15 seconds later, Ballard made another three-pointer.
After Natt and English scored field goals, Mahorn and Williams each made two foul shots. Then the Nuggets called time to set up their last play.
The foul trouble proved to be the biggest drawback for Washington. At one point the team was forced to go with Williams, Ballard, Jeff Malone, Frank Johnson and Dudley Bradley. At times, Malone was matched up front against English.
Said Shue: "We had some really weird lineups in there at times." McMillen agreed. "We're down enough manpower-wise as it is," he said. "Getting into foul trouble makes it that much more difficult, because you can't play defense as aggressively."
That point was borne out in rebounding. Besides holding a 45-42 edge, the Nuggets had 15 offensive boards, several of them in the fourth quarter when the Washington frontliners couldn't contest for fear of fouling.
"I thought we were snake-bit for a while," Moe said. "We miss two free throws and they hit two three-pointers and all of a sudden it's tied. But it's about time we had some luck go our way."
The game was interesting because of the contrasting styles of the teams. Because of their injuries, the Bullets hoped to slow the game, a tactic that has helped them hold opponents under 100 points 13 times this season.
Twelve times this season the Bullets have failed to score 100 points. Since Moe was hired as coach in December 1980, the team has scored fewer than 100 points only nine times, while yielding fewer than 100 only 10 times.
Although both teams went over that point, Shue was justified in thinking that his team had more than held its own. "Playing them at home, outgunned like we were, I thought it was just an excellent game for us."
Malone agreed: "You can't feel bad about a game like tonight. We hit the game-winner against Utah on Wednesday and they did it tonight. We just need our big fellows back. That's when things will get really interesting."