Last night at Capital Centre, the Seattle SuperSonics made a mockery of the theory that teams from the NBA's Western Conference play a physically inferior brand of basketball.
Relying on bruising play from a front line of Tom Chambers, Tim McCormick and Jack Sikma, the visitors bullied the Bullets into submission and took a 93-92 decision before 8,967.
The loss dropped Washington back to .500 at 32-32.
The narrow margin in the final score was a result of a remarkable Washington comeback. Down, 88-75, with 6:24 to play, the Bullets, led by Jeff Malone's 10 points, outscored the SuperSonics, 17-5, over the remainder of the game.
Malone was the game's high scorer with 31 points. Chambers had 29 for Seattle (27-37), whose front line outscored Washington's, 52-33.
Chambers, a 6-foot-10 forward from Utah, also led the SuperSonics in rebounding, with 14. Sikma added another 13 and the visitors enjoyed a 57-47 margin on the boards.
Seventeen of those rebounds came on the offensive end and led to 15 Seattle points, one reason the SuperSonics won despite anemic 37 percent shooting from the field.
Another reason was that the Bullets made only 41 percent of their field goal attempts. The team has been getting by for most of center Jeff Ruland's 25-game absence with good offensive execution that leads to good outside shots. Tonight those shots weren't falling.
Greg Ballard was one for 12 from the field. Gus Williams, with 24 points, had a better game against his former teammates than he did in a 109-94 loss on Feb. 12. Nevertheless, he made only nine of 24 shots.
"It really hurts that we have to rely on our outside shooting; tonight our jumpers were really off," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue.
"We made a great comeback but basically we don't hit our shots when we need to."
The shot that Washington needed the most came just a second before the final buzzer. The Bullets tied the score at 91 on a Malone jumper with 1:11 to play, but 12 seconds later, Chambers, perhaps fittingly, scored a crashing dunk on an alley-oop pass from Gerald Henderson.
With 37 seconds to play, Ballard was fouled underneath the basket by Chambers, but made only the second of his two free throws.
Working the 24-second clock, Seattle pounded the ball down low to rookie forward McCormick (14 points, nine rebounds). He missed inside and Charles Jones rebounded for the Bullets with 12 seconds to play.
Jones, with 11 rebounds and seven blocked shots in 25 minutes, once again played a fine game but still fell prey to what Shue called "a rookie mistake." After collecting McCormick's missed shot, Jones passed the ball off to Williams instead of immediately calling a timeout.
The difference was that instead of having the choice of inbounding the ball from either their base line or at midcourt, the Bullets were required to take the ball the length of the floor. Shue later said that the team probably would have taken the ball out at midcourt, but "things worked out all right anyway."
That was because Williams, doing a good job of dribbling around the SuperSonics' defensive pressure, snaked his way the length of the floor and found himself going to the basket with Sikma in his path. He released a high-arcing shot off the board but the ball spun around the rim and fell out.
Chambers also had a number of shots go in and out of the basket, leading him to comment, "If I could have made a few, I might have scored some points." In the first contest between the two teams, the four-year veteran scored a season-high 34 points.
Despite his high-performance against the Bullets, Chambers denies that he feels particularly comfortable playing against Washington. "They have one of the strongest, most physical teams in the league; when they pack it in on defense I take a lot more punishment than I give out," he said.
"When we can get the ball up and down the floor, make it a running game, I feel that I can beat them that way by going to the basket and drawing some fouls."
Chambers converted 11 of 15 free throws and the SuperSonics as a team made 28 of 37 from the line. All but 10 of those attempts came in the first half, during which the Bullets went to the line just 13 times. At game's end, the Bullets had shot only 25 free throws, a discrepancy that Shue said "should never, ever occur."
The only problem was, one wasn't sure if that was a knock on the officiating or on the Bullets' lack of an inside game.