LANDOVER -- Washington Bullets coach Wes Unseld lost four of his players, including both starting guards in a 24-hour span, but watched his badly depleted squad almost pull off a remarkable upset of the world champion Detroit Pistons last night.
It took the clutch shooting of All-Star guard Joe Dumars to save the Pistons from a major embarrassment. He scored eight of his 22 points in the fourth quarter, as Detroit survived a furious second-half rally by the Bullets to win its fifth straight and 17th of the past 19, 80-75.
"That was the ugliest ever," Pistons center James Edwards, a 13-year veteran, said in summation.
Edwards had seen a bunch of obscure Bullets substitutes shoot 19 percent in scoring a franchise-tying low 25 points in the first half but still have a chance to tie it in the closing seconds of the game.
Only when A.J. English missed a three-point shot with the Bullets trailing, 78-75, and 15 seconds left on the clock, did the Pistons take a deep breath. Washington was forced to foul, and John Long, who rejoined Detroit on Jan. 25 after a season-ending wrist injury to playmaker Isiah Thomas, iced it with a pair of free throws.
"We had to hold on to our lives to get out of here," said Pistons coach Chuck Daly, bidding for a third straight National Basketball Association title. "The Bullets really competed in the second half. We couldn't make a shot. It looks like we're going to have to learn the hard way that we have to play hard every night to win in this league."
The Bullets, who were swept in the season series with Detroit, 4-0, went in one night from the sublime to the ridiculous -- from an exhilarating victory in New York ignited by Bernard King's 49 points to an inept half of basketball.
But there were excuses.
All-purpose guard Darrell Walker, who leads the Bullets in rebounds and assists, sprained his right knee against the Knicks and will be lost for three weeks. Reserve forward Mark Alarie also was injured against New York, suffering a lacerated eye after running into teammate Charles Jones' elbow.
But the jinx carried over. Before the game, Ledell Eackles, due to start in Walker's place, was scratched with a case of the flu. He came out for the warm-ups, but left the court doubled up in pain.
It soon got worse. The game was less than two minutes old when Unseld's lone remaining point guard, Haywoode Workman, pulled up lame with a groin injury. He tried to play again at the start of the second half, but re-injured himself and was done for the night.
That left the Bullets with the odd couple of rookie A.J. English and seldom-used Byron Irvin as the backcourt. Neither is a point guard, and it showed in the team's ragged first-half offense when King, with 12 points, was the only Bullet with more than four.
Obviously, Unseld had some things to say when his team finished the half trailing by 13.
"I thought we were feeling sorry for ourselves," he said. "The guys thought they were trying to do the job, but I call it 'false hustle.' We weren't accomplishing anything out there.
"But in the second half, we settled down. Irvin played as well as could be expected against Detroit's guards. We clawed, scratched and had a chance to win it. That's always the first thing with me, having a chance to win."
The Bullets, making their only national TV appearance this season, had more than a chance as the Pistons, using their slowdown defense, also struggled to score against a swarming defense led by Pervis Ellison's aggressive rebounding and shot-blocking.
"We just tried too hard in the first half," said Ellison (15 points, 10 rebounds). "We were taking the shots they were giving us, and that's how they beat teams. In the second half, we controlled the tempo, and that's how we got back in it."
The Bullets pulled into a 56-56 tie on Ellison's layup to start the final quarter, but John Salley answered with a running hook, and managed to keep the Pistons in front the rest of the way.
In the end, the Bullets were almost completely worn out. English, Irvin, Harvey Grant and King were forced to play 43 minutes or more. King, under the usual tight policing by Dennis Rodman, finished with 24 points, but managed only one field goal in the final quarter.
But it was Daly who was bemoaning the close escape. "Right now," he said, "it's impossible for us to score 100 points. Without Isiah, we're running scared."
The injured Bullets (20-25) were barely walking.