They'd had two practices together and only a couple of pregame meetings, but the Washington Bullets of coach Kevin Loughery gradually became the Washington Bullets of Coach Wes Unseld last night.
A chilly evening that began with a standing ovation from a Capital Centre crowd of 6,173 ended with a victory in Unseld's debut, 101-97 over the hapless New Jersey Nets.
Two days after owner Abe Pollin fired Loughery, Unseld watched the Bullets break a five-game losing streak and improve to 9-19, even if at the expense of a club that fell to 5-23 and lost its 20th straight road game, 12 this season.
The Nets finished with only six healthy players, but stayed close on three straight three-point jumpers in the fourth quarter and because of a couple of individual performances. Center Mike Gminski scored 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds and guard Otis Birdsong threw in 17 points, 15 in the second half. Buck Williams had 18 rebounds.
Meanwhile, the Bullets got production from several places, most of them familiar. Center Moses Malone scored 26 points on 11-for-18 shooting and cleared 17 rebounds. Guard Jeff Malone scored 21, but it was Unseld's two new starters who gave the Bullets their biggest lift.
Point guard Tyrone Bogues was put back in the lineup because Unseld wants to get the Bullets up and down the floor more quickly, the better to make up for having only one dominant rebounder. Bogues did that, dealing 12 assists in 36 minutes.
Unseld also restored forward Bernard King to the first five, and King responded in electrifying style. He scored 27 points, 13 in one stunning last-quarter stretch.
It was a game of highs and lows, with the Bullets running up a 16-point lead in the second quarter only to see it fade to a four-point deficit in the third. There was one near-fight in the fourth quarter when King and a frustrated Dudley Bradley (a guard forced to play forward) squared off under the basket.
Minutes after that, there was a real fight. It was brief, but Washington's Terry Catledge and New Jersey's Williams were ejected.
All in all, though, it wasn't a bad night for Unseld.
"I feel good we got off the skids," he said. "It is my first win as a coach, and that means something. But you have to keep it in perspective. We were playing a team that has had as many or more problems as us."
He started King and Bogues "because I wanted to spread the court on these guys a little . . . I told the guys not to get hung up on starting lineup. This was what we thought would work."
If Unseld took quickly to his job, his players seemed to take quickly to him. King seemed enthusiastic.
"We wanted to win for Wes," he said, "but we wanted to win, period. Wes wants us to become aggressive in trying to get the fast break, which will help because we have some quickness and speed. The guards are going to get more responsibility as to when to push the ball and when to run the offense."
That's particularly good news for Bogues, whose shooting slump had sent him to the bench as Loughery searched for the right combination. Last night, though, fast breaks might have saved a team that had a terrible time in its half-court offense.
"I love this kind of game," Bogues said. "I'm glad he showed confidence in me."
The day began with a brief practice and Unseld giving each player a typed scouting report on the Nets -- "to study the guy we'd be guarding," John Williams said.
When he strolled on court before the game, Unseld drew a standing ovation from the few thousand fans who braved the bitter cold. Unseld smiled and waved, and the Bullets responded, too, hitting six of their first eight shots and breaking to a 9-2 lead en route to leads of 30-18 at the quarter and 49-37 at the half.
The Bullets missed eight of their first nine second-half shots, and the Nets took leads of 57-53 and 59-55.
The Bullets regained the edge, but it was still close early in the fourth quarter, 69-67. Bogues scored on a fast break, and that's when King went to work, scoring his team's next 13 points.
King hit from 18 feet to make it 73-67, then spun on Bradley in the lane for a 75-69 lead. A minute later, it was 76-74, and he hit slick back-to-back baskets from the lane. He scored on two more fast breaks when his streak was done, and the Bullets were up by 84-78.
The Nets made one more run, as John Bagley hit two three-pointers and Birdsong another. That got the Nets within 99-97 with 27 seconds left, but a foul shot by Bogues at :18 sealed it.