INDIANAPOLIS -- An opening day that started with the news that forward John Williams had been placed on suspension ended on an exhilarating high, as the Washington Bullets defeated the Indiana Pacers, 109-103, before a Market Square Arena crowd of 13,407 last night.
When the television cameras disappeared, usually stoic Bullets coach Wes Unseld did an impromptu victory dance.
"I felt awfully good about this win," Unseld said. "It was a real strong effort on our part coming here and spoiling their opening night."
No one could really blame Unseld for his buoyant mood.
With Williams in limbo, last season's scoring leader, Bernard King, lost indefinitely after September knee surgery, and top draft pick LaBradford Smith nursing a sore ankle, the 1991-92 Bullets were being likened to an expansion team.
But one summer move paid an instant dividend. Michael Adams, acquired from the Denver Nuggets for two draft picks, proved how valuable a talented point guard can be, as he provided 23 points, 13 assists and a career-high nine steals.
When it appeared the Bullets were about to blow a 10-point lead in the final four minutes as the Pacers closed to 104-103, Adams made two free throws with 19 seconds left.
Chuck Person rushed a three-point attempt that fell far short of the mark, and A.J. English made three foul shots in the final seconds to put it out of reach.
Adams had plenty of help, with five other Bullets scoring in double figures. Pervis Ellison and Harvey Grant each scored 18, English had 13 and reserves Tom Hammonds and David Wingate contributed 14 and 13 points, respectively.
But it was the strong defensive efforts of Grant and Wingate that particularly pleased Unseld.
"If we're going to win, we're going to have to do it defensively," said Unseld. "Grant did an excellent job on Chuck Person, and Wingate harassed Reggie Miller."
Person, who yearns to be rated among the top small forwards in the league, was limited to 11 points on 3-for-11 shooting. Miller, a potential All-Star, scored a team-high 21 but failed to make one of his three-point specialties and never got an open shot against Wingate, the Dunbar High and Georgetown alumnus who was claimed as a free agent this summer.
Wingate also gave the Bullets a surprising offensive lift in the third quarter, making five baskets when the Bullets rallied from a 60-52 halftime deficit to carry an 87-81 lead into the final period.
"We've been after David to look for his shot more," said Unseld, "and I guess he got the message."
But Adams, on his second time around with the Bullets, proved how he earned his reputation.
"The key was when we started getting our fast break going," Adams said. "We ran in Denver, too, but there was a lot more pressure on me to score. We've got a lot of guys here who can do the job."
Said center Charles Jones: "What Michael does for us is to break down the defense by penetrating and hitting the open man or forcing them outside to stop his three-point shots. Defensively, he helps our inside defense by sneaking up behind and creating steals."
It left the Pacers, who were predicting a 50-victory season and a run at a conference title, shellshocked.
"That was one of my biggest disappointments I've been through since I got here," said coach Bob Hill, who led the Pacers to a strong finish last season after replacing Dick Versace. "We were awful, just awful. We threw the ball all over the arena [26 turnovers] and settled for jump shots in the second half. We were lackadaisical, and our concentration just wasn't there. There's no reason for that now."
Added Miller: "We played terrible. If we play like this against Utah tomorrow [today], we'll lose by 30 points."
Perhaps general manager Donnie Walsh was the most perplexed of all by the Bullets' victory. Only a few days ago, Walsh worried aloud about the Pacers having "too many good players."