Hornets deliver OT knockout Bullets lose lead, game, 127-121

January 31, 1993|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Staff Writer

LANDOVER -- "Eighteen thousand fans saw the guy throw the punch, but all three officials somehow missed it," said Washington Bullets co-captain Harvey Grant.

The phantom punch Grant was referring to was tossed by Charlotte Hornets star Larry Johnson late in the second quarter in the direction of Washington guard LaBradford Smith, who had fought too aggressively through a pick.

"He definitely swung at me," Smith said. "But you know how they treat superstars in this league."

Instigated or not, the blow should have resulted in an automatic ejection for Johnson. But the All-Star forward remained in the game to finish with 27 points and 19 rebounds, and joined sixth man Dell Curry in beating the Bullets in overtime, 127-121.

The script was all too familiar for Bullets fans, who had watched the home team blow an overtime game to the Los Angeles Lakers last Friday.

Washington, which reached the halfway point of the season with a 12-29 mark, appeared in command when Michael Adams converted a pair of free throws for a 113-110 lead with 13 seconds left in regulation. But for the Bullets, that can be an eternity.

The Hornets' obvious strategy was to give Curry, their best three-point shooter, a chance to tie it. Bullets coach Wes Unseld instructed small forward Buck Johnson to play belly-to-belly and never lose sight of the Hornets sharpshooter.

"I had my hands up in his face and tried to make him throw a pass," said Johnson. "But Curry shoots without jumping and gets it off so quickly that it throws you off defensively. I just didn't do a good enough job, but he still made a real tough shot."

Said Curry, who finished with a career-high 33 points on 14-for-25 shooting: "We changed that play twice. Larry Johnson made a great catch on my inbounds pass, and Buck turned his head slightly, almost looking into the stands. I knew I had him then."

Even after this dramatic shot split the nets, the Bullets still had nine seconds left to win it in regulation.

But typically, Adams found himself stuck with the ball and the clock expiring. Guarded by 5-foot-3 Muggsy Bogues, the smallest man in the NBA, Adams fired up an air ball from the baseline as time expired.

"I was supposed to set a screen for Grant," said Bullets center Pervis Ellison. "But Grant had already cleared out. Once the play was broken, Michael just had to look for the best shot."

Given a chance, the Hornets (20-20) quickly took control in the overtime. They scored the first seven points to grab a 120-113 lead and withstood a pair of three-point shots by Smith.

His second three made it 123-121 with 19 seconds left in overtime, but Bogues and former Dunbar teammate David Wingate wrapped it up with four straight free throws.

"We came down and took some real dumb shots in overtime," said Unseld. "I hollered at the guys to set up a play, but they just spotted up and shot the ball the first chance they got."

The youthful Hornets exhibited much more poise in the overtime, getting the ball in the hands of their proven scorers.

"We took bad shots and didn't get back on defense," said Grant. "A close game is when you're supposed to really dig down, especially on defense."

But the Bullets came up empty. Wasted were strong efforts by their three front-line players. Grant scored 29 and grabbed 14 rebounds; Ellison chipped in with 26 points and 10 rebounds; and rookie forward Tom Gugliotta ended a scoring slump with 25 points to go with his 14 rebounds.

But in crunch time, no one stepped up, and it all added up to another frustrating loss.

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