LANDOVER -- Washington guard David Wingate, stuck in a sudden snowstorm on Route 95, did not arrive at the Capital Centre last night until the end of the first quarter for the Bullets game with the Phoenix Suns.
But the Bullets' defense also was noticeably absent for almost three quarters, allowing the Suns to roll up a 22-point lead before Washington mounted a furious fourth-quarter comeback.
Five times, Washington closed to within four points, but the Suns survived, 121-115, before a storm-reduced crowd of 6,124.
The Bullets seemed to have their best chance of ending a four-game losing streak when Ledell Eackles made a 20-foot jumper to trim the margin to 111-107, with 3 minutes, 28 seconds left.
But while Eackles was shooting, A. J. English got entangled under the basket with Suns guard Jeff Hornacek. English, saying Hornacek had tossed him to the floor, retaliated by throwing an elbow, which earned an ejection from referee Billy Oates. Not only did the ejection take English (15 points), who had joined Pervis Ellison (30 points, 14 rebounds) in leading the comeback, off the floor, but the Suns also got two free throws, which Hornacek hit to give the Suns a six-point lead.
Although the Bullets stayed close, Michael Adams, who had scored 21 points in the first three quarters in breaking a shooting slump, remained on the bench. It was not until Phoenix padded the lead to 117-109 with 1:41 left that Adams replaced Andre Turner.
"I thought Turner did a good job bringing us back and with our trapping defense," said Bullets coach Wes Unseld. "But when it came time for us to put the ball up, I put Michael back in."
Washington (14-26) got within four twice more, the last time on Larry Stewart's layup with 31 seconds remaining. But Adams fouled Hornacek eight seconds later, and his two free throws put the game out of reach.
"Even after we got our big lead," said Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, "I warned my guys that the Bullets get their team character from Unseld and keep coming at you. They could have folded, and it would have been a 'laugher' for us. They made it fun, but not for me."
Fitzsimmons is blessed with one of the deepest benches in the NBA. His second unit, of Dan Majerle, Cedric Ceballos, Andrew Lang, Negele Knight and former Maryland star Jerrod Mustaf, was just as impressive as the starters.
In the second quarter, they combined to make 15 of 20 field-goal attempts to finish the first half with a 73-59 advantage.
Working their offense to perfection, the Phoenix reserves got uncontested layups and open jump shots. On the few times they missed, a Sun was there to put back the offensive rebound -- 11 in the first half.
Asked about his team allowing so many high-percentage shots in the lane, Unseld said: "We don't bump anybody driving to the hoop. Who on our team is going to bump somebody -- Ellison or [Harvey] Grant? They're just not big enough.
"We allowed their guards to get behind our big people where they could get layups or just hand off to their forwards for easy shots. But their talent also has something to do with it."
Ellison attributed the latest loss to the team's customary slow start.
"We always seem to dig ourselves a hole," he said. "You can't allow a team to score 73 points in a half. We just didn't execute defensively, especially in boxing out on the boards. They got too many second shots. But they've also got great one-on-one ability in guys like Kevin Johnson and Majerle to break you down."
Johnson scored a subpar 11 points, but Hornacek, going against rookie LaBradford Smith, making his first start for the tardy Wingate, always seemed to be making a clutch shot whenever the Bullets made it tight.