LANDOVER -- Washington Bullets coach Wes Unseld had two thoughts watching New York Knicks forward Kiki Vandeweghe drive the lane for a layup in the closing seconds with a chance at the tying basket.
"At first, I thought it was going in and we were heading for our second straight overtime game," Unseld said.
And when it spun out at the buzzer . . ?
"I said, 'Merry Christmas!' "
But this tense, 87-85 victory was not gift-wrapped for the Bullets (9-15), who extended their home winning streak to five by playing 48 minutes of intense defense and limiting Knicks star Patrick Ewing to a sub-par 20 points and five rebounds.
The victory, before a Capital Centre crowd of 12,913, ended a seven-game losing streak against New York, dating back to February 1989.
Ewing, who had averaged 34.7 points and 12.7 rebounds in his past six encounters against Washington, figured to enjoy a similar performance last night, particularly with Pervis Ellison sitting out a one-game suspension for fighting and the Bullets' other two big men -- starting center Charles Jones and back-up Greg Foster -- in early foul trouble.
But the Bullets used a swarming defense, double- and triple-teams and several gimmicks, according to Unseld, to limit NTC Ewing to 13 shots in 38 minutes.
The 7-foot center from Georgetown also cost his team a chance to gain the lead when he missed a pair of free throws with 1 minute, 36 seconds remaining.
Bullets scoring leader Bernard King, who struggled offensively (8-for-23), then made a difficult reverse layup for an 86-83 cushion. Ewing answered with a tip-in with 57 seconds left.
Both teams then missed shots, and the Bullets had the ball and a one-point lead with 5.8 seconds to play. New York had a foul to give and forced the Bullets again to inbound the ball.
John Starks, who had played against Bullets guard Haywoode Workman in the Continental Basketball Association and World Basketball League last season, fouled Workman in the backcourt with 5.1 seconds remaining.
Workman, who scored a career-high 21, made the first but missed the second, giving the Knicks an opportunity to tie or win with a three-pointer.
"I thought they were going to set up Vandeweghe for a three," said Bullets forward Harvey Grant (20 points, six rebounds). "When he went around me, my heart skipped a beat. Last year, that shot would have gone in. This year, we're getting a few breaks."
Said Vandeweghe: "It was a little bit of a busted play. I thought the shot was in, and there was some contact on the play. But in that situation, you have to get nailed pretty hard for the referee to call it."
The Knicks (11-13), 4-5 under new head coach John MacLeod preferred thinking they had played poorly. Ewing called it "one of our worst games."
But MacLeod gave Washington credit for its tenacious defense and aggressive rebounding, with the smaller Bullets finishing with a 40-34 advantage on the boards.
Then, there was Workman, who entered the game with a 6.5 scoring average but has averaged 11.3 in his past six starts. Last night, he was a real puzzle to the Knicks, hitting eight of 13 shots on an assortment of twisting drives and soft jumpers.
"He was a rocket out there, and a dynamo on defense. He really hurt us," said MacLeod.
Unseld has seen steady improvement in the stocky, 6-foot-3 guard from Oral Roberts who had two 10-day trials as a rookie with the Atlanta Hawks last season.
"Truthfully, we thought about not bringing him back after our summer camp," Unseld said. "But [assistant coach] Chuck Douglas kept saying he deserved another look, and Haywoode just persevered."
Said Workman, who won the starting job over since departed rookie Larry Robinson: "I didn't dream about starting. I just wanted to make it in the NBA.
"At first, I was reluctant to shoot the ball, looking to set up the other guys. But they kept telling me, 'If you have a shot, take it.' I always knew I could play, but now my confidence is growing every game."