Scoring five of the last seven points of the game, the Washington Bullets broke a five-game losing streak and got their first victory under new Coach Kevin Loughery, beating the Indiana Pacers, 111-110, before 7,865 last night at Capital Centre.
Washington's victory also was their first in five meetings with Indiana this season. Guard Jeff Malone led the Bullets (33-38) with 26 points, followed by forward Cliff Robinson's 25.
Indiana (25-47) was paced by forward Herb Williams and guard Clint Richardson, each with 21 points.
The Bullets were lucky to win. After shooting 68 percent and leading by 14 points in the first half, they faltered badly, particularly in the third quarter. During a horrendous 12-minute stretch, the Bullets shot four for 19 from the field (21 percent) and committed eight turnovers, one more than they made in the first half.
"I don't know what happened. We just didn't come out ready," said center Jeff Ruland, who was playing his second game after recovering from a strained left knee. Following the game, Ruland reported discomfort.
"It blew up again," he said of the knee, which was covered in ice. "There's just a lot of fluid in there. At halftime it started getting sore."
Ruland's probably was the only discomfort felt by the Bullets in the opening half. In the first 24 minutes, Washington was the most impressive running team this side of the Los Angeles Lakers, taking a 69-57 lead. The fast break helped Washington to its highest first-half point total of the season. An added bonus were four three-point plays in the second quarter.
"It just feels good to get out and run," said Robinson.
But there have been numerous occasions this season when the Bullets looked like world-beaters in the first half and just looked beaten after intermission. That was the case last night, but the reasons why were entirely different, according to guard Gus Williams.
"We just aren't used to running so much," he said. "It was partially fatigue and partially the fact that we haven't played that way in so long, but in the third quarter we just fell back into our old ways, walking the ball up and down the floor."
Indiana was quick to take advantage of the Bullets' hesitancy. The Pacers, like the Bullets, are in the middle of a playoff chase and almost were able to match Washington shot for shot in the first half, converting 58 percent of their field goal attempts. The Pacers scored eight of the first 10 second-half points (six on layups) on the way to a 22-9 run that put them ahead, 76-75, late in the third quarter.
"I think it's a combination physical and mental tiredness," said Loughery of his team's third-quarter troubles. "We played last night and they're pushing the ball more than they had previously. It's tough to change styles this late in the season."
It's also been tough for the Bullets to beat the Pacers. And for most of the final quarter it seemed as if the game would be a replay of the previous five. Leading, 82-80, after three periods, Indiana went up by six points, the last time with 5:44 left following a layup by center Steve Stipanovich.
Even after Washington came back to take a 106-105 lead on a jumper by Williams, it appeared Indiana's sway over the Bullets would continue. At the 1:52 mark, Herb Williams was engulfed by defender Gus Williams but managed to flip the ball towards the basket. Somehow, it went in. The free throw gave the Pacers a two-point lead.
The Bullets came back, though not without some harrowing moments. Robinson hit one of two free throws with 1:37 to play; 12 seconds after that, Malone scored the go-ahead points on a driving jumper. With 41 seconds to play, Washington forward Dan Roundfield seemed to ice the game with two free throws but Indiana's Vern Fleming scored on a layup with three seconds left.
One tick later, Ruland was fouled but missed both free throws. The Pacers took a timeout but when play resumed, a shot by Herb Williams missed badly.
"A lot of games are haunting us now," said Richardson, whose Pacers, despite a poor record, find themselves just 1 1/2 games out of the last Eastern Conference playoff spot.
Washington's victory, combined with Philadelphia's win over New Jersey, moves the Bullets within 1 1/2 games of third place in the Atlantic Division, which eventually could mean a more-favorable postseason matchup.
That wasn't on Loughery's mind immediately after the game, however.
"I think we played extremely well tonight, especially down the stretch," he said. "When you win in your own building for the first time it has to mean something special."