LANDOVER -- Former NBA All-Star Ralph Sampson, the newest addition to the Washington Bullets, says he has enjoyed playing at the Capital Centre since making his first appearance there as a high school school sensation from Harrisonburg, Va., in the 1979 Capital Classic.
But it is his Bullets teammates who have had trouble feeling at home. Last night, they dropped their fifth straight at the Capital Centre since beating the Boston Celtics in their home opener, bowing to the Seattle SuperSonics, 113-106, before a crowd of 7,015.
As they had against the Philadelphia 76ers, Golden State Warriors, Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz, the Bullets (4-7) had a number of opportunities in the fourth quarter to win. But the absence of a half-court game and go-to guy in crunch time proved a glaring weakness.
Again, point guard Michael Adams (31 points, seven assists) tried to pull a rabbit out of his hat. With Washington trailing, 107-99, he scored five points to pull the Bullets within three with 1 minute, 34 seconds remaining.
It was still a three-point game with 1:07 remaining, after rookie forward Larry Stewart converted a pair of free throws.
But the Bullets did not score again, as the Sonics (6-3), emerging as a Western Conference power, used the free-throw shooting of Benoit Benjamin and Derrick McKey and a breakaway layup by Gary Payton to win for the sixth time in their past seven games.
Reminded of the Bullets problems at home, forward Harvey Grant (16 points), who played 46 minutes after missing the previous five games with a sore foot, said: "We've had a chance to win every game at home. We just haven't made the critical play. It's the other team that has been making the big shot or getting the crucial rebound. Sooner or later, it will come around."
After cutting Albert King and placing small forward Tom Hammonds on the injured list yesterday with a pulled groin muscle, Bullets coach Wes Unseld was left with few frontcourt options off the bench, save for Sampson and swing man Ledell Eackles, who has also sat out the last two weeks with a groin pull.
"I didn't want to play Harvey that many minutes, but I really didn't have much choice," he said.
He also tried to give center Pervis Ellison (18 points, 11 rebounds) a breather by inserting Sampson in the third quarter, but the 7-foot-4 center, who spent the last two seasons in limbo with the Sacramento Kings, showed obvious signs of rust in his scoreless seven-minute stint.
Rookie guard LaBradford Smith, the Bullets' No. 1 draft pick from Louisville, also made his NBA debut after missing the entire preseason with an ankle injury. Smith managed a pair of free throws in five minutes.
All told, the Bullets bench produced only nine points, and the overworked regulars were ultimately worn down by the Sonics' powerful inside combination of Michael Cage (20 points, 20 rebounds) and Benoit Benjamin (15 points, 11 rebounds).
"Cage did a great job of rebounding the ball and putting it back in," said Unseld, a former rebounding force, recognizing Cage's eight offensive boards. "Of all the Sonics, he hurt us most of all."
But there were others, notably Payton, the second-year point guard who made nine of 11 shots in scoring a career-high 22.
"Payton has been taking over games since the exhibition season," said Sonics coach K. C. Jones. "Last year, he showed he could play solid defense. Now he's added the offense. He knows when to take charge out there."
Added Cage: "Gary did a great job in the second half when we got down [72-67], but kept our composure. With last season's additions of Ricky Pierce and Benjamin, we're much stronger now. And we still have one of our stars [forward Shawn Kemp] on the injured list."
Unseld, in the meantime, will be trying to mix and match, with his Bullets facing a schedule that calls for six of the next seven games on the road.
Asked for a first impression of Sampson, who joined the team only an hour before the game, he said, "He got his hands on some balls and altered some of their shots.
"Expectations? I don't really have any of Ralph because I haven't seen him play for a number of years. It would be stupid for me to say I expect him to do this or that when he hasn't even practiced with us."
Said Sampson: "It will take a lot of work. My timing was off and my wind was heavy. I was just happy to be playing again.
"I've still got a lot of pride in my game and ability. I played well the first 4 1/2 years in the NBA, and then I was hurt most of the last 3 1/2 years. I know I can get it back. It's just a question of how long it will take."