Short-handed, if not sleepy, the Washington Bullets relied upon a little guile and a lot of repetition to defeat the New Jersey Nets, 98-93, tonight at Byrne Arena. But the team may have paid a steep price, as guard Frank Johnson pulled up lame late in the NBA game.
Cliff Robinson scored 12 of the Bullets' first 14 points, and newcomer Freeman Williams hit for 11 of the next 18. Their scoring came mainly as the result of players being isolated on one side of the court or the other, and it set the tone for the rest of the night.
Robinson finished the game with 20 points, three more than Williams, who was playing in his second game for the Bullets. Guard Jeff Malone also had 20 for Washington, 15-14 and the winner of its last three games on the road.
The game began at 9:30 p.m., pushed back two hours from the scheduled tip-off because of the AFC wild-card game across the road at Giants Stadium.
The Nets, who had won five straight and nine of their past 10 games, were missing their inspirational leader, Micheal Ray Richardson. The all-star guard, second in the league in steals and ninth in assists, was AWOL for an afternoon shoot-around and missed the game as well. Last season, Richardson was voted the NBA's comeback player of the year after his return from a drug problem.
In a scene reminiscent of last Feb. 7, Johnson limped off the floor after dribbling from one side of the court to the other in an attempt to kill the clock in the final minute of play.
Last season, in a similar situation, Johnson broke the fourth metatarsal bone in his left foot. The fifth-year veteran was out until the playoffs. In the offseason, he hurt the foot again and missed the first 15 games of this season.
Since his return, he averaged 12.8 points and 5.4 assists. He started the last eight games, and in that span, his numbers increased to 15.3 and seven, respectively.
"This is a very important year for Frank," Bullets Coach Gene Shue said. "He was coming back from the injury, with a chance to start. He's in the last year of his contract, and he was making important contributions to the team. Now this."
Johnson left the arena on a set of crutches. The taking of X-rays was to be delayed until Sunday morning in Washington, according to trainer John Lally.
The Bullets already were missing Jeff Ruland (out with a fractured ankle) and Gus Williams and Kenny Green, both of whom remained in Washington with the flu. But Washington's isolations and one-on-one sets were enough to keep the Nets at bay for much of the game.
The Bullets took the lead for good with 5:21 to play on a jump shot by Johnson. From that point, it was a matter of surviving, a prospect that didn't seem too likely during one almost-comical sequence.
Washington was ahead by 90-87 with just over three minutes left when Johnson stole the ball from Albert King but lost it in a tangle with Malone, who was streaking down court. King recovered the ball but lost it to Robinson at midcourt, who tried to throw a blind pass down the floor to Malone. The attempt wasn't anywhere near the guard, though, and a short time later, King was scoring on a jumper to cut the Bullets' lead to 90-89.
But, just as in Friday night's 111-109 win over Atlanta, Washington didn't fold. Darren Daye (13 points in 20 second-half minutes) was given a basket after Darryl Dawkins was called for goaltending, then came back with two free throws after a Kelvin Ransey jumper.
Dawkins then scored on a layup over Manute Bol (six blocked shots) with 1:14 to play, but after missed field goal attempts by each team, Freeman Williams sank two free throws for the Bullets with 16 seconds to play. Robinson finished off the scoring nine seconds later with another two from the line.
"We won the only way that we can win," said Shue. "Hang in there, play good defense, control the pace of the game and try to hit some shots down the stretch. I just think our players did a fantastic job. Darren, Freeman, (Tom) McMillen -- we just got great production from everyone."