LANDOVER -- Denver Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo stands 7 feet, 2 inches tall, has long arms and has earned his reputation as one of the NBA's best shot-blockers. So when Washington Bullets point guard Brent Price put his head down and drove the lane in the final seconds of what was a tie game yesterday -- well, courtside fans could not be faulted if they ducked.
But instead of swatting the shot of the 6-1 Price into oblivion, Mutombo just stood in his path with his hands down and Price casually deposited the winning layup with less than a second left. The basket gave the Bullets a 92-90 win before sellout crowd at the USAir Arena.
The victory gained the Bullets (31-37) a split in a four-game homestand and, with 14 games left, kept alive the team's slight playoff chances. Help may be on the way -- Robert Pack will practice today for the first time since suffering nerve damage in his left leg Jan. 8.
Also, Rasheed Wallace will have two pins inserted into his fractured left thumb and, while the team isn't banking on it, there's a slight chance he may come back in two weeks.
"If he can come back, he will," Bullets coach Jim Lynam said.
In the meantime, the Bullets will have to play on and yesterday they got a solid effort from their starting five. Gheorghe Muresan came off his nightmarish defensive outing against Shaquille O'Neal (49 points) on Friday to score 22 points and grab 10 rebounds. Juwan Howard added 20 points, despite not scoring a field goal in the second half, and Price mixed it up with the big boys as he grabbed eight rebounds and scored 11 points -- including the two at the end that had everyone puzzled.
"We didn't make the play," Nuggets coach Bernie Bickerstaff said. "We were supposed to send that [shot] back to the third row and send the game into overtime. And we didn't."
Mutombo, with four fouls, didn't have to worry about fouling out on the play. And he had already blocked five shots, which was slightly above his league-leading 4.57 blocks per game. He figured his reputation would speak for itself.
"I thought when he drove all I had to do was challenge him and he would pass the ball," said Mutombo, last season's NBA Defensive Player of the Year. "My hands were already down."
So were the Nuggets (28-40), who lost their third straight game and saw their own playoff chances diminish. Denver was playing without top scorer Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who hurt his left foot on Thursday and has missed two straight games.
That injury has meant increased minutes for former Bullets guard Doug Overton and he was checking Price when Calbert Cheaney inbounded the ball from half-court with 3.1 seconds left after a Dale Ellis layup tied the game at 90. With LaPhonso Ellis doing a good job defensively on Howard for the second half, the final play was intended for Ledell Eackles (13 points).
"Ledell was covered," Price said. "I was supposed to be a decoy and I got a step on Doug. Calbert did a good job in finding me.
"I went as strong as I could and felt Dikembe would challenge me. I put my head down and thought I could get a foul call. I was surprised [Mutombo didn't challenge it]."
The ball went through the basket with seven-tenths of a second left. A youngster in the locker room after the game congratulated Price on his buzzer-beater, but Tim Legler wasn't buying it.
"No way," Legler said. "Time has to expire for it to be a buzzer-beater."
Even so, it couldn't take away from the moment from Price, who came through in a must-win situation.
"That might be my first buzzer-beater; if not, it's the closest to the buzzer I've ever gotten," Price said. "This was a huge win for us."
The Bullets today are expected to sign journeyman forward-center Bob Thornton.
Pub Date: 3/25/96