By the subdued tone in their dressing room at the Baltimore Arena last night, it was difficult believing the Atlanta Hawks had just set a franchise record with their 13th straight win, 116-108, over the Washington Bullets before a sellout crowd of 12,756.
"It's nice, real nice," said new head coach Lenny Wilkens, who has transformed a desolute team into a title contender.
"Naturally, I'm happy about the win, but the thing I'm happiest about is that this team could fight back from an early 10-point deficit and we really hung together and played with poise down the stretch."
These thoughts were echoed by team leader Dominique Wilkins, who has sacrificed his offense for team unity, but displayed flashes of his brilliance in scoring a game-high 31 points.
"We got the record, but I'm not excited," said Wilkins, a perennial All-Star forward. "I won't get real excited until we win 20 in a row. We want to keep things in perspective."
The Bullets, at 6-13 heading in the other direction with their seventh straight loss, jumped out in front 13-4 after the opening tip and put up a stubborn fight after trailing 91-74 late in the third quarter.
Led by 5-foot-10 point guard Michael Adams, who scored a team-high 28 points and also grabbed 11 rebounds, Rex Chapman and rookie Calbert Cheaney, Washington closed to 97-93 early in the final quarter.
But each time the Bullets drew close, the Hawks responded with a run. And third-year guard Stacey Augmon, who scored a season-high 27 points, usually was the catalyst.
"I'm just getting the ball in the right place at the right time," said Augmon, who appeared tentative under coach Bob Weiss last season.
Said Wilkens: "Everyone told me that Stacey was an introvert. But he's not. We had long talks with him before the season started and set certain parameters. He's just playing with a lot more confidence."
After the Hawks boosted their lead to 106-95, the Bullets made one last push, using an effective trapping defense to close to 108-104, with 2:50 remaining. But they would draw no closer, with Chapman missing three shots down the stretch.
"I had good shots, but they just kept rimming in and out," said Chapman, enjoying his best pro season.
The Hawks (14-4) gave up 11 more points than their average of 97 per game, but an improved defense remains their strong suit.
"That's what I stressed from Day One," said Wilkens, who is 59 wins from eclipsing Red Auerbach's career record for coaching victories (938). "I believed we had the athletes in Mookie Blaylock and Augmon to play pressure defense. Then we added [former Cavalier] Craig Ehlo. We could pressure the ball, and we had shot-blockers in Kevin Willis and Andrew Lang."
But Wilkens also sold Wilkins on sharing the ball, and the Hawks now seem to have a team chemistry they never displayed in the past decade.
"Lenny is a players' coach," said Wilkins. "His system is easy to learn. All you really have to do is listen."
Bullets coach Wes Unseld attempted to shake up his slumping team by starting rookie Mitchell Butler in place of Don MacLean at small forward. Butler was assigned the unenviable task of guarding Wilkins.
Washington concentrated on getting the ball down low to Kevin Duckworth in the opening minutes. Duckworth provided two baskets and Tom Gugliotta hit a three-pointer in sponsoring a 9-2 lead.
Adams electrified the crowd with a behind-the-back feed to Duckworth for a layup and a 13-4 spread.
Wilkins began revving up, scoring on three inside moves to close the gap to 17-12. The Bullets then turned to Adams, who drew repeated fouls from Blaylock and Ennis Whatley.
Seven straight points by Adams boosted Washington's lead to 24-14 before Augmon countered with a five-point spree.
Driving the middle at will, the Hawks closed to 35-30 after one quarter. The Bullets made 61 percent (15 of 23) of their field-goal attempts in the quarter.
Atlanta continued its layup drill at the start of the second quarter. Easy baskets by Augmon and Whatley pushed the visitors ahead 39-37. But Cheaney reclaimed the lead, 41-39, posting up the shorter Blaylock for consecutive baskets.
The Hawks then capitalized on the Bullets' failure to get back on defense, with Duane Ferrell of Calvert Hall, Wilkins and Blaylock scoring breakaway layups for a 50-45 cushion.
The lead soon ballooned to 60-50 before the Bullets answered with a 6-0 run. But by halftime, the Hawks had built their advantage to 67-58.
The Hawks' ease in scoring was underlined by their 62 percent shooting in the first half.
Atlanta expanded its lead to 82-66 early in the third quarter. Adams and Butler sparked a Washington rally to trim the deficit to 93-85 after three quarters.
Things got even tighter at the start of the fourth quarter. Baskets by Chapman and Gugliotta made it 93-89. Augmon and Whatley then made layups for an eight-point bulge.
The Bullets made another run, pulling back to 108-104 with 2:50 left, but Chapman couldn't connect.
"I can't remember an Atlanta team that played defense that well," Chapman said. "Other teams might be stronger and bigger, but the Hawks are winning. That's what counts."