In the end, after Frank Johnson made a rare four-point play with seven seconds left in double overtime to beat the Detroit Pistons, 128-126, last night at Capital Centre, Bullets Coach Gene Shue succinctly summed up this wacky, wonderful NBA game.
"It was," Shue said, "one of the most remarkable games I've ever been involved in."
Few, if any, of the 6,386 in attendance or those watching the national cable telecast would disagree. Not even Detroit Coach Chuck Daly, whose team tried in vain to foul before Johnson's game-winning three-point shot and ensuing free throw made it 127-126. Not even all-star guard Isiah Thomas, who had 25 points, 24 assists and 10 rebounds on a night he also challenged Bullets center Rick Mahorn to a fight.
Until the final 2 1/2 minutes of regulation, it appeared Washington would lose its fifth straight, again coming up just short, as it has so often the last three weeks with big men Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson out of the lineup with injuries.
Then, after Mahorn fouled out, the Bullets made four three-point goals in the final 2:10 of regulation, two in the last minute by Gus Williams (27 points, 10 assists), the last to tie the game at 103 with 12 seconds to play. With 21 seconds to play, Detroit's Bill Laimbeer (21 rebounds, 17 points), an 80 percent foul shooter, had missed two free throws.
Then, in the first overtime, the Bullets appeared ready to win until Thomas made a three-point shot with 12 seconds left to force another overtime. That seemed to turn the momentum the Pistons' way. When John Long (28 points) scored six of Detroit's first eight points in the second overtime, it was 124-119.
As Thomas would say afterward, "I've been in the league long enough to know it's not over until the final buzzer sounds." The Bullets came back on long jump shots by Williams and Jeff Malone (30 points, 19 in the first 15 1/2 minutes) to make it 124-123 with 1:02 to play.
But when Thomas drove the lane and scooped in a layup and Gus Williams followed by badly missing a three-point attempt with 32 seconds to go, it seemed the Piston would be able to run out the clock. But Thomas took an ill-advised jump shot with 18 seconds to play, and Greg Ballard (10 points, 16 rebounds) got the rebound for Washington.
The Bullets called timeout with 17 seconds left and put Johnson (12 points) back into the lineup. Detroit had a foul to give, and Daly informed the officials during the timeout of the Pistons' intentions.
The ball was inbounded to Gus Williams, who was guarded by Brook Steppe. Steppe had one arm around Williams' body and his knee jammed in Williams' back. "He grabbed me," Williams recalled. "I said, 'What is this?' It was a foul, and they didn't call it."
Seeing Steppe unable to get a foul call, Thomas decided to leave Johnson, his man, and try to foul Williams, too. Now Johnson was open, but Williams hesitated. "Isiah was moving over in the passing lane," Williams said. "I didn't want him to deflect it."
When Johnson took the pass, he was in perfect position to shoot. As he did, Laimbeer came off of Tom McMillen, his man, in an effort to stop the shot. But just as Johnson released the ball, Laimbeer pushed back the guard's shooting hand. The 25-footer swished in, tying the game, and Johnson's free throw made it 127-126.
Starting this season, there had been only 20 four-point plays in the NBA since the three-point shot came into existence in the 1979 season. "It's always a great sensation to make a shot like that," Johnson said. "To leave for the all-star break on a winning note feels great."
But to do that, Washington had to make two more good defensive plays. After a timeout, Detroit's Terry Tyler inbounded the ball from midcourt to Long in the corner. But, under Darren Daye's pressure, Long walked. Steppe fouled Johnson with three seconds left, and Johnson made the second of two foul shots.
The Pistons again took a timeout, and again they had the opportunity to inbounds from midcourt. This time the Bullets denied all passes toward the hoop, making Tyler inbound to Long near midcourt. Williams knocked the ball away with less than a second to play, and the Pistons never got off a shot.
Thomas was not inclined to talk about his run-in with Mahorn (10 points, 11 rebounds) afterward. Television replays showed that Mahorn -- apparently by accident -- hit Thomas in the mouth with about 3 1/2 minutes left in regulation. During a timeout, Thomas went to the Bullets' bench, pointed a finger at Mahorn and was restrained from going after him.
"I got my tooth knocked halfway out," Thomas said after the third double-triple of his career. "I don't really remember what happened. When you play them, it's physical."
Nevertheless, the Pistons, who played without starters Kelly Tripucka and Dan Roundfield, outrebounded the Bullets, 64-50, and Daly was left to say, with some frustration, "When you beat them that badly on the boards, you should win the game."
Before the game, the Bullets announced that Ruland had withdrawn from Sunday's All-Star Game in Indianapolis because of tendinitis in his right shoulder. Laimbeer will take his place.
Although Ruland, out 12 of the last 13 games, doesn't know when he'll be able to play, there was good news from Robinson, out 15 games because of his injured right leg. Robinson said team doctors say he can resume practice Monday, when the Bullets will reconvene after the mandatory three-day all-star break. "I'll go as hard as I can, as long as I can," he said. "I did some light jogging Tuesday. There was still pain, but it wasn't too severe."
But Robinson, who was averaging 16 points and eight rebounds before his injury, said he was uncertain whether he'll be ready for Tuesday night's game in Seatle.