Around the NBA, the Atlanta Hawks are being called the most exciting team east of the Los Angeles Lakers. Tonight at the Omni, they compressed a mass of acrobatics and gyrotechnics into a five-minute span of the second period, then were able to coast to a 107-91 victory over the Washington Bullets.
A jump shot by Washington guard Leon Wood tied the score at 42 with 5:11 to play in the first half; by intermission, Atlanta had run off a 20-6 burst to take control of the contest. Igniting the outbreak for the Hawks were forwards Dominique Wilkins and Kevin Willis. In the impressive span, the two combined for 12 points and two assists.
By game's end, those numbers were extended to a game-high 33 points for Wilkins, who also added nine rebounds for the Hawks (47-30). Willis scored 26 points and got 16 boards. Washington (35-41), losers of three consecutive games and its last five on the road, was led by guard Jeff Malone's 32 points.
The Bullets' most impressive performance, however, may have been turned in by reserve forward Tom McMillen. Honored tonight for his six years of service with the Hawks, the veteran was the only other Washington player in double figures, scoring 21 points and playing a major role in the Bullets' attempt at a late-game comeback.
On the floor with fellow reserves Wood, Dudley Bradley, Dan Roundfield and starter Charles Jones, McMillen helped Washington cut a 17-point deficit down to 87-80 with just over seven minutes to play. At that point, Bullets Coach Kevin Loughery began platooning his players; for example, at center using Manute Bol defensively, McMillen on offense.
The ploy worked to the extent that Washington still was within seven, 96-89, with 2:46 left. Fourteen seconds later, Willis scored for the Hawks and the Bullets were unable to retaliate; Bol losing the ball out of bounds after an offensive rebound. On their subsequent possession, the Hawks sealed the victory when Wilkins dropped in a shot just before the 24-second clock expired.
"The people who were out there in the second half did a good job, but what really disturbed me was that stretch in the second quarter," said Loughery. "This is a 48-minute game and we're not good enough that we can have letdowns. I don't expect a perfect 48 minutes but tonight we let down and we can't do that."
Particularly when they shoot a frigid 38 percent from the field, as the Bullets did tonight. In addition, the Bullets were badly outrebounded by the Hawks, 63-46. That type of advantage translates into copious fast break opportunities, which Atlanta jumped on.
It was the Hawks' first victory over the Bullets this season after three losses. In those games, the Hawks seemed spooked by the presence of Bol, who rejected 15 shots in a 111-103 Washington victory on Jan. 25. Tonight, said Wilkins, the team decided that the adage of discretion being the better part of valor was indeed true.
"If you just stand around and tip-toe up there [to the basket], he's going to block it," said the league's third-leading scorer. "Tonight, we wanted to get out on the break and get a lot of easy buckets."
Twenty of Atlanta's 41 field goals were either layups or dunks, a tribute to that philosophy. Meanwhile, the Bullets' fast break, according to forward Cliff Robinson, "had dwindled down to next to nothing." Even so, Loughery felt that the game's pace was definitely in his team's favor but for the fatal five minutes of the second quarter.
"The numbers were where we wanted them to be, it was just that one period," he said. "We took three or four bad shots, then didn't recover defensively and they turned them into fast-break points. They're too good to do those things against."
As to the comparison to the Lakers, Hawks Coach Mike Fratello, quickly demurred. "Who are we to talk like that? The Bullets had beaten us three straight times," he said. "Tonight we had to play much better because of the way they had handled us before."
Tonight's performance was convincing enough that the Bullets' fourth-quarter efforts almost appeared false. "We were able to make that run at them but that happens a lot in the NBA," said Malone. "Teams are able to do that but then they don't have a lot left. And after we got there, the Hawks got a couple of easy baskets that really broke our backs. That's the sign of a good team."
No matter which part of the country they play in.