Entering their season opener at the Omni tonight, the Washington Bullets were under the impression that with 7-foot-7 rookie center Manute Bol, they were the team that was supposed to revolutionize professional basketball.
That was before they got a dose of Spud Webb. At 5 feet 7, a full 24 inches shorter than Bol, the diminutive point guard nevertheless dominated the action for much of the game. But after recovering from their initial surprise, the Bullets managed to regroup in time to come away with a 100-91 NBA victory.
The win came as a result of some clutch shooting by the Bullets near the end of the game, played before 10,129. Jeff Malone scored seven points in the final 3:33 to help Washington pull away. Back-court mate Gus Williams scored four of his 21 points in the last minute. Forward Cliff Robinson led the team with 22 points.
Those performances were enough to overcome 32 points by forward Dominique Wilkins, as well as Webb's 12 points and 10 assists.
"It was important for us to win this one in order to build on the things we've been working on all preseason," said Washington Coach Gene Shue. "I'll tell you, though, Atlanta really played well. In the first half, we were giving them the outside shot and they were hitting it. Fortunately for us, in the second half our defense got better and they started to miss some."
Until that happened, however, nothing appeared to happen to expectations. There was Webb -- ironically, a teammate of Bol on the Rhode Island Gulls of the U.S. Basketball League -- darting through Washington's defense for a pair of easy layups. At the same time, the Hawks' big men, led by Wilkins, were playing bombs away from the outside.
"(Webb) did a really nice job penetrating," said Shue. "Especially early. I'm sure that Gus would attest to that."
The Washington defense improved in the second half, but perhaps just as big a factor in the final result was that Webb played only 29 of the game's 48 minutes. His absence was felt most during an eight-minute span of the second half. When Webb left the game at the 4:49 mark of the third quarter, the Hawks were ahead, 65-63. When he returned with 8:18 to play in the game, Atlanta trailed, 81-76.
Of course, there was the matter of the Bullets weathering those final eight minutes, which wasn't easy. However, according to Shue, the task was made simpler by his team's heady play.
"When we got the lead, we did things the right way," he said. "We rotated the ball properly and that got good shots for Malone and Cliff. It's important to handle things like traps and presses."
It's more important to have someone who can capitalize when such situations occur. Tonight, it was Malone.
"Just call me clutch," he said jokingly. "I really wanted the ball then, even though I hadn't shot well earlier. That's where maturity comes in. My rookie year, I probably never would have taken those shots. I probably would have been overpassing the ball."
The first shot came with 3:33 to play and the Bullets clinging to an 87-86 lead. The margin had been 87-80, but a jumper by Wilkins, a slam dunk by Kevin Willis after a pass from Webb and an offensive rebound-basket by Cliff Levingston brought the Hawks within a point. (For the game, Atlanta outrebounded Washington, 44-40, getting 16 offensive rebounds).
Twenty-nine seconds after the first basket, Malone struck again and added a free throw when he was fouled by Tree Rollins while shooting. The third basket came at the 1:18 mark and gave the Bullets a 96-90 lead.
All of Malone's fourth-quarter points came on passes from center Jeff Ruland, who also made his presence felt with 19 points and 14 rebounds. He had nine assists. Ruland's passes to the wide-open Malone foiled the Hawks' attempts to double-team the low post.
"We kind of shocked them," said Malone. "They had been double-teaming all night, but we switched our positioning on the court. Then, after the first couple of shots, we switched again and put me in a different spot. I think they were surprised."
But the Hawks weren't able to recover as well as the Bullets.