LANDOVER -- The New York Knicks found the best way to deal with growing dissension and distractions at the Capital Centre last night.
They overcame a 21-point deficit in the second half and beat the Washington Bullets, 104-101, on Trent Tucker's three-point shot with two-tenths of a second remaining.
With one dramatic victory, center Patrick Ewing's contract hassle, guard Mark Jackson's two-game suspension, and constant team turmoil were all forgotten in the joyous Knicks dressing room.
Said Tucker, the veteran guard who had been buried in coach John MacLeod's doghouse as recently as three weeks ago: "Once the trade deadline passed, we knew these were the guys who were going to be on our team. Distractions and situations are always going to be there, just like in life. We have to just focus now on playing basketball."
The Knicks and Bullets, battling for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, played this one like a championship game. In the end, New York (23-31) had opened up a 1 1/2 -game lead over Washington (22-33), which lost its second straight at home, this time before a divided crowd of 17,053.
The Bullets dominated the first half and gained a 69-48 advantage in the opening minute of the third quarter. But the momentum quickly swung to New York, which used the shot-making of Gerald Wilkins (25 points) and the aggressive board work of Charles Oakley (22 points, 20 rebounds) to tie it at 101.
With 18 seconds left, Ewing (21 points) missed the second of two free throws and gave the Bullets an opportunity to win.
Rookie A.J. English, who has been forced to play point guard in the recent absence of Haywoode Workman (he returned last night) and Darrell Walker, wound up with the ball and the clock running down.
He hurried a jump shot from just inside the three-point line and reserve forward Brian Quinnett grabbed the key rebound for the Knicks with 2.7 seconds remaining, more than enough time to set up a game-winning play from halfcourt.
"It was just one of those things," said English. "I took a bad shot and took it too soon."
Bullets coach Wes Unseld would not blame English.
"First off, he's a rookie playing out of position," Unseld said. "He's in a pressure situation being hounded by a veteran guard like Maurice Cheeks. I should have never put him in that situation. It was my fault, not his. We had a play set, but it bogged down. Credit the Knicks defense."
The Knicks did a much better job of executing their final offensive play.
"It was meant for Tucker all the way," said MacLeod. "The worst that could have happened was that Trent misses and we go into overtime. But Ewing set a great pick on the baseline and Oakley made a perfect pass and Trent did the rest."
The Bullets were in a blitzing defense and English was picked by Ewing on the baseline. Center Pervis Ellison, called on to switch, could not get close enough to distract Tucker, one of the league's premier three-point shooters.
The most disturbed Bullet was forward Harvey Grant, who has been struggling with his offense of late and was restricted to seven shots and 13 points. "I'm not pointing any finger," said Grant, but I'm the No. 2 scorer on this team, and I'm not getting involved in the offense. I'm kind of sick of it. We're not looking for the open man. Too many guys are trying to do it on their own."
Bernard King, who thrives on playing against his former team, led the Bullets with 39 points. It was almost as impressive as his 49-point explosion in New York Jan. 31, but this one went for naught.
King accounted for his team's last seven points. His runner in the lane gave the Bullets their last lead, 101-100, with 1 minute, 26 seconds remaining, but they would not score again.
"This one wasn't won or lost in the last seconds," Unseld said. "We lost this game in the third quarter when we allowed Wilkins to break loose. I kept reminding my guys he goes right, but no one stopped him from driving the middle."
Wilkins crammed 14 points into the third quarter and the Knicks chopped the deficit from 21 to seven. The Bullets made only eight of 25 shots in the final quarter as the Knicks picked them up early and forced them out of their offense.