The Washington Bullets won their first "home" game in more than a month, but not before the injury-riddled Charlotte Hornets gave them a scare before a Baltimore Arena sellout crowd of 12,054.
It took clutch free-throw shooting by Larry Stewart, David Wingate and Michael Adams in the last 30 seconds to seal the Bullets' 129-124 victory, only their second home triumph in 12 games.
"I couldn't remember us making back-to-back free throws," Bullets coach Wes Unseld said, remembering how inept foul shooting had cost his team a chance to beat Houston the previous night. "And this win was at home, sort of."
And just barely, against a last-place team that was missing four of its key players -- Rex Chapman, J.R. Reid, Johnny Newman and Mike Gminski.
But the Hornets (8-22), trailing by as many as 12 points in the final quarter, refused to quit. Washington (10-18) seemed to have it safely in hand, leading 120-112 with 79 seconds left, but consecutive three-pointers by rookie forward Larry Johnson and second-year guard Kendall Gill pulled Charlotte within a basket at 124-122 with 38 seconds remaining.
Rather then trying to stop the Bullets defensively, the Hornets elected to foul Stewart, the rookie forward from Coppin State making his first Arena appearance. Stewart (21 points, 11 rebounds) converted both free throws.
Johnson, who crammed 16 of his game-high 29 points into the final quarter, quickly answered with a short jumper. With 16 seconds left, the Hornets fouled Wingate, and the Dunbar High product made both for 126-122.
Johnson kept the crowd from leaving by hitting a layup with 26 seconds to play, but two free throws by Adams (22 points, eight assists) and another by Bullets center Pervis Ellison (20 points, 10 rebounds) finally put it to rest.
"They did a good job getting us to play an up-and-down running game," Unseld said. "That's how they're most effective. But, in the end, they caught us by surprise by having two guys hit threes -- Johnson and Gill -- we didn't expect would take them."
The Bullets also must have surprised the Hornets by shooting 67 percent in the first half (31-for-47) and used a 41-point second quarter to take a 68-63 lead in a defense-free game that resembled a shooting gallery.
Almost everyone improved their scoring average, with Harvey Grant regaining his shooting touch in the second half to lead the Bullets' balanced offense with 25 points.
Most of Grant's baskets came off the motion offense and on quick curls to the basket.
"That's something I've been trying to do all year," said the fourth-year forward. "I can't just rely on my jumper. I've got to be more aggressive going to the hole."
The Bullets, who have played short-handed all season, took no pity on the injured Hornets, who received inspired efforts from Anthony Frederick (15 points) and Kenny Gattison (16 points, 14 rebounds) and the usual explosive scoring from "sixth-man" Dell Curry, who provided 21 points in 29 minutes.
All the Bullets were impressed by Johnson, the UNLV All-America who was the first player selected in the 1991 NBA draft.
"He's big and quick inside, and we just don't have guys with enough beef to keep him from getting his position," said Unseld.
"He's a very explosive player," said Ellison. "But the Hornets did a good job of spreading the floor and hitting their outside shots. That made it easier for Johnson to score inside."
Johnson made only three of nine shots in the first half, but eight of 11 in the second half with a variety of quick spin moves on the baseline and a feathery jump shot from the key.
"I missed a lot of easy shots in the first half and got kind of frustrated," said Johnson, 6 feet 5 1/2 and 250 pounds. "I wanted to show everyone in the second half I was raring to go."
He almost pulled it out for the Hornets, as the Bullets narrowly averted defeat despite shooting a season-high 61 percent from the field.
And the injury list continues to grow. Reserve forward Tom Hammonds re-injured his groin muscle shortly after missing a slam-dunk attempt with nine minutes to play.
He will be examined tomorrow morning before Washington plays host to the San Antonio Spurs that evening.