For all too long, the Washington Bullets have been searching for a go-to guy to make the difference in close games.
They thought they had finally found the man this season in Rex Chapman, only to lose the guard last week to an ankle injury.
But Don MacLean, a second-year forward from UCLA, may be ready to fill the clutch role. He certainly played the part at the Baltimore Arena last night in scoring 31 points, including nine in the final quarter, to hold off the Detroit Pistons in the Bullets' 98-93 victory before a sellout crowd of 12,756.
MacLean, averaging a team-high 18.2 points, is already being talked up as the NBA's most-improved player after struggling as a rookie. He made 10 of 18 field-goal attempts and 11 of 14 free throws and grabbed seven rebounds.
"We know Don can score," Bullets coach Wes Unseld said. "But what impressed me most about Don tonight was his defense against Sean Elliott.
The last time these two Eastern Conference also-rans met at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich., Nov. 9, the Bullets won, 118-112, but Elliott scored a game-high 27 points. Last night, the former Arizona All-American was hardly a factor, scoring 10 points in 38 minutes on 4-for-10 shooting.
"I want Sean to take jumpers because he's so good at putting the ball on the floor," said MacLean, who gives away quickness to Elliott. "But after Sean missed his first few outside shots, he never seemed to get in the flow."
The same could hardly be said for MacLean, who was the only consistent offensive weapon for the Bullets (13-24) in a game where they shot 42.5 percent.
Every time the Pistons threatened to pull even in the final quarter, MacLean found a way to score on his quick-release jumper or draw free throws.
"Wes believes in going with the hot hand, so the team ran a lot of plays for me tonight," MacLean said. "With Rex out, I feel that I've got to be the 'go-to' guy. I started out hot, hitting my jumper, and that opened things up for me in the lane where I could draw contact."
MacLean's final foul shot gave Washington a 90-86 lead with three minutes left. He then turned the offense over to point guard Michael Adams (23 points).
Adams made a three-pointer for 93-86, but a three-pointer by Isiah Thomas trimmed the margin to 95-91. Adams scored an acrobatic scoop shot for a 97-91 lead with 55 seconds remaining to guarantee Detroit's 15th loss in its past 16 games.
Unseld preferred defense over offense in the closing minutes, benching Tom Gugliotta (21 points, 11 rebounds) and starting center Kevin Duckworth.
The strategy worked when Pervis Ellison, still trying to get his game in gear, provided two of his three blocks, and reserve forward Kenny Walker grabbed two offensive rebounds to help run off time.
"We also got a big lift from Doug Overton," said Unseld, who coupled the lightly played second-year guard with Adams in the stretch.
"I like playing with Michael," Overton said. "This time, I played the point, and that freed up Michael for his shots."
Overton also shut down All-NBA guard Joe Dumars (25 points) in the last three minutes. Dumars and Thomas, who were both chosen for "Dream Team II" have been required to carry the offensive load and are showing signs of wear and tear.
"I didn't want Joe and Isiah to play a lot of minutes again tonight," Pistons coach Don Chaney said, "but I had no choice. I tried the young guys -- rookies Lindsey Hunter and Allan Houston -- but it just wasn't working. We were very sharp in the third quarter, but in the fourth quarter, we just died."
That's when MacLean caught his second wind to give the Bullets their second win this season over the Pistons, a team that used to beat them consistently when they were known as "The Bad Boys" and won consecutive NBA titles. Now, the Pistons are simply bad.
NOTES: There were several familiar faces at Baltimore Arena in Jones and former Maryland star Coleman. Jones, a long-time Bullets reserve center and nine-year NBA veteran, was wearing a Pistons uniform. Jones, 36, signed a 10-day contract Friday, replacing injured rookie center Dan O'Sullivan. Jones had not stayed in Detroit long enough to have his name sewn on his uniform shirt. Coleman, a bulky forward, was playing for Rapid City in the CBA when he joined Detroit last week. He had played previously for New Jersey, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. . . . Detroit was also without starting C Olden Polynice, who is sidelined with a ligament tear in his left knee.
Opponent: Miami Heat
Site: Miami Arena
Radio: WXZL (103.1 FM), WTEM (570 AM)
Outlook: This is the teams' second meeting of the season. Bullets C Kevin Duckworth provided the winning points in a 104-102 victory Nov. 20 at Baltimore Arena. Bullets F Tom Gugliotta led the team with 25 points and 10 rebounds. The Heat has lost seven straight games after Friday's 118-98 loss to the Detroit Pistons. F Glen Rice (21.1 ppg) and G Steve Smith (16.1) lead the Heat. Washington has lost eight straight games in Miami, with the last win on Feb. 6, 1990.