Knicks hold off Bullets Johnson scores 29 in 105-100 loss

February 03, 1993|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- His teammates were starting to call him "Air Johnson" last night as small forward Buck Johnson found that special shooting zone usually reserved for the likes of Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Chris Mullin, hitting shot after shot to keep the Washington Bullets within range of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

Johnson, known more for his defensive prowess, began the game averaging a modest 4.4 points. But by consistently posting up smaller Knicks guards, the seventh-year NBA veteran enjoyed his best offensive night in two years, making 13 of 17 shots to finish with a game-high 29 points.

Unfortunately for the Bullets, John Starks was just as hot for New York in the fourth quarter. The streak-shooting guard crammed seven of his 28 points into the last two minutes to help the Knicks to a 105-100 victory.

It was just another excruciating loss for the Bullets (12-30), who battled back from a 16-point deficit in the third quarter to overtake the Knicks, 92-89, on Pervis Ellison's three-point play with 5:42 left.

A three-pointer by Starks reclaimed the lead for New York, 100-99, only to have Johnson counter with his final basket on a fallaway baseline jumper with 86 seconds left.

And then everything turned sour for the Bullets, who have repeatedly come up short in crunch time, including two overtime losses last week.

The Knicks turned up the defensive intensity to force turnovers or low-percentage shots, and Starks made another clutch jumper and added two free throws for a 103-100 lead.

Tom Gugliotta, the Bullets rookie forward who has experienced his worst two nights as a pro (a combined 3-for-21) playing in his hometown of New York, attempted a tying three-pointer from the corner.

It banged high off the front of the rim, and Anthony Mason then iced it for the Knicks with two foul shots.

Quite simply, the Knicks made all the big plays down the stretch while the youthful Bullets again showed their inexperience in executing their half-court offense.

Critical errors were committed on both ends of the court, leading to Washington's 18th loss in 21 road games. Defensively, the Bullets twice allowed the Knicks to spring Starks loose.

"On the first one [Starks' three-pointer for 100-99]," Bullets coach Wes Unseld said, "LaBradford Smith doubled down on Patrick Ewing in the post, and Michael Adams didn't rotate quick enough.

"On Starks' second shot [Knicks 101-100], we were supposed to force him baseline, but Pervis Ellison didn't step out fast enough."

So much for the defense. On offense, the critical breakdown came after Starks put the Knicks ahead by a point with 71 seconds left.

Adams picked up his dribble some 30 feet from the basket and the Knicks swarmed all over him, cutting off his passing lane to Johnson, again positioned down low. With the 24-second clock running out, Gugliotta forced a drive through a crowd of defenders and was stripped of the ball by Charles Oakley.

Forward Harvey Grant, who had joined Johnson in sparking the second-half comeback before leaving in the fourth quarter with a lower back injury, summed up the Bullets' frustration.

"Being a young team, we played well enough to win," he said, "but it's just the decisions down the stretch that messed us up again. But if we keep competing like we did tonight, good things should start happening."

It is starting to happen for Johnson, who wallowed on the bench for the first two months before Unseld, seeking defensive help, opted to start him in place of shooting guard Rex Chapman.

Johnson has limited shooting range and is most effective posting up. Up to last night, he drew a lot of double teams, but the Knicks gambled, and almost lost in giving him single coverage with a guard.

"I played a lot of 2-guard this summer and I'm starting to feel comfortable," said Johnson, who spent his first six NBA seasons with Houston. "But tonight was special. A couple of times coming back on defense, Ewing kidded me, 'Cmon, Buck, you can miss one.' "

In the last minute, Johnson didn't get a chance to miss, providing a new reason for another Bullets loss.

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