As closely associated as Gene Shue and Bernie Bickerstaff were over the previous five NBA seasons, when the opportunity arose for the two men to match wits and strategies as coaches, what else could be expected but a closer than close game?
That certainly was what happened last night at Capital Centre as Shue's Washington Bullets and the Seattle SuperSonics, now under the direction of Bickerstaff, Shue's former assistant, played through an incredible 65 ties and lead changes before the Bullets emerged with their seventh straight win at home, a 115-109 victory before 11,031.
The defense exhibited by both teams, which often bordered on something akin to hand-to-hand combat, was phenomenal. The deciding factor was that the Bullets were a bit more adept at game's end.
After the SuperSonics opened the fourth period with a 12-4 run that put them in front, 96-90, Washington regrouped with a vengeance, holding the visitors to just a single basket in the final 8:23 of the game.
But even with all of the defense, things hardly were easy for Washington (9-11). In fact, it took major contributions by a pair of players buried deep in the freezer that passes for Shue's doghouse to ensure the win.
With 15 seconds to play, Tom McMillen, who had played just 38 minutes in the previous six games since returning from a hamstring injury, tipped in a Gus Williams miss that gave the Bullets a 113-109 lead. Three seconds after a Seattle timeout, Dudley Bradley, virtually inactive the past week, flicked the ball away from Ricky Sobers before the guard could launch a three-point attempt. Shortly thereafter, Williams sank two free throws to seal the win.
The defensive intensity at game's end even overshadowed an outstanding offensive performance by the Bullets' Jeff Malone. The third-year guard hit his first 12 field goal attempts and 16 of 22 overall, finishing the game with a season-high 37 points.
"I guess things were going good for me," he said. "There were times that I was pump-faking or double-clutching, but the ball was still going in. It was one of those nights. We were running the same plays as we do every night, but it was one of those nights when I was ready to shoot well."
Certainly, there was very little that either coach could do that the other didn't immediately recognize and attempt to counteract, usually with success. "We were together for five years," Shue said. "I know him pretty well and he certainly knows my ideas."
"We're definitely on the same wavelength," agreed Bickerstaff.
And there were some light moments. Late in the first quarter, after some hounding of the officials by Shue, Seattle was called for consecutive illegal defense violations. That prompted Bickerstaff to move down the sidelines to complain. After speaking his piece with the officials, he motioned to Shue and whispered, "Nice call, Gene."
In the closing minutes, however, both men were all business. Although the Bullets held Seattle without a field goal, the SuperSonics (9-12) went nine of 10 from the free throw line while the Bullets were missing three of their first six attempts.
As a result, when Gerald Henderson hit two free throws with 3:52 to play, it put Seattle in front for the final time of the evening, 102-101. Less than 20 seconds later, however, Malone scored his final points of the night on a long jumper to give the Bullets the lead.
The basket was the first of six straight points by the Bullets, but Seattle came back with three foul shots by Jack Sikma to make the score 107-105. Sikma fouled out trying to guard Jeff Ruland and when Ruland made two free throws the score was 109-105. A short time later, the stage was set for the final heroics.
Another major incident in the game occurred with 7:02 to play. While Charles Jones was scoring on a layup, Cliff Robinson and Seattle's star rookie, Xavier McDaniel, were getting tangled up beneath the basket. After some twirling and shoving, both men were ejected from the game.
The Bullets appeared to come out ahead on the ejections. At the time of the players' departure, McDaniel had scored 19 points with five rebounds, while Robinson, in foul trouble for most of the night, had only six points and four rebounds.
McDaniel might have been able to do somthing about a Jones slam-dunk on an offensive rebound that made the score 111-106 with 1:13 to play, but chances are he could not have prevented a Gus Williams steal with 29 seconds left that finished off a splendid night on which he scored 26 points and had six assists.
"Those were some great things that happened for us at the end," said Shue. "We were able to make great plays whenever we had to."
At game's end, Shue and Bickerstaff embraced warmly at midcourt, the battle, for one day, over.
"It felt strange to be on that side of the bench," Bickerstaff said. "Now I know how the visiting team feels.
"Bernie's been a great friend," said Shue. "I just congratulated him on his team being so well-prepared. Right now, a win is a win for us, that's how I look at it. But it was a pleasure to see him on the opposite sideline."