LANDOVER -- There was nothing unusual about Seattle SuperSonics forward Shawn Kemp shaking his head after the dunk that started the third quarter last night -- except that, for a change, he was the recipient of the facial, courtesy of Gheorghe Muresan. It gave the Washington Bullets a 12-point lead, and an upset appeared in the making.
But once again, it was just a tease. By game's end, all was back to normal, as Seattle led by as many as 19 points on its way to a 121-107 victory over the Bullets before 16,940 at USAir Arena.
The crowd ended a franchise-record nine straight sellouts for the Bullets (7-20), who lost for the 12th time in 13 games. It's a good thing for the Bullets that they face Seattle just twice a season, as they lost their 11th straight to the Sonics.
After allowing 66 points in the first half, the Sonics, who play the passing lanes perhaps better than any team in the league, put on a defensive clinic. Led by guards Gary Payton and Nate McMillan, Seattle forced the Bullets into 23 turnovers.
"Their defense was very, very good," said Bullets coach Jim Lynam, who got a season-high-tying 23 points from Calbert Cheaney. "We had 66 at the half and when I looked up with four to go in the fourth, we had 90. They do a lot of good things with their schemes."
And Seattle won despite an off- night from Kemp, who got in foul trouble early and finished with just 10 points -- two in the second half.
His offense wasn't needed, as Detlef Schrempf and Sarunas Marciulionis produced big second halves. Schrempf had 14 after intermission, Marciulionis scored 10 in the fourth quarter and each finished with 18.
Payton's 24 points led the Sonics, who had seven players in double figures.
Perhaps the biggest shot of the night came from Schrempf just before the third-quarter buzzer, with the 6-foot-10 forward banking in a 55-foot shot that gave the Sonics a 90-84 lead.
"Sure it was lucky," said Schrempf. "We had a good run going before that, and that put a cap on it and maybe broke their back."
It ended a quarter that started with the Sonics falling behind by 12, 68-56, on Muresan's dunk on Kemp.
The fourth quarter was all Seattle (19-9). Schrempf hit a three-pointer to start it, and he and Marciulionis combined to score Seattle's first 14 points for a 104-92 lead.
The Schrempf-Marciulionis show offset Cheaney's big game. A 41.9 percent shooter going in, Cheaney hit nine of 16 shots. "The shot was just falling tonight," he said.
It also was falling for Anthony Tucker, who hit eight of nine shots and scored 16 points. Six Bullets scored in double figures and Washington -- a 44.1 percent team from the field going in -- outshot Seattle 55.3 percent to 54.0 percent.
But in the end it added up to another loss, with the Bullets embarking on a short two-game road trip that takes them to Indiana tonight and Atlanta on Friday.
"Again, we play well for two or three periods and then we go the opposite way," Cheaney said. "They tried a different defensive look and we have to recognize it and keep playing. They were quick, they doubled down in the hole a lot."
Against that quickness it didn't help that point guard Scott Skiles played the game after missing Monday's practice with the flu.
"Yes, he was less than 100 percent," Lynam said of Skiles, who was limited to four points and two assists in 18 minutes. "You have to give him the benefit of the doubt. That he was even here, a lot of players would have taken an extra day. He was sick, sick [on Monday]."
Doug Overton played impressively in 30 minutes, his longest stint of the season. The reserve point guard recorded season highs of 15 points and seven assists.
"They were doing a lot of double-teaming and that made way for my game," Overton said.
But Sonics coach George Karl had a backup guard of his own in McMillan, who scored 11 points and had a team-high nine assists and six steals.
"Nate was the MVP," Karl said. "He got us defensively motivated. He gave us confidence to get the offense going."
McMillan, who led the league in steals last season, demonstrates the Sonics' depth.
"We don't have a dominant player, so we have to all chip in and help," McMillan said.
"We have enough talent on this team that someone can step up and come through for us night to night."
That's a trait that Lynam would like to see with his Bullets. But with the rash of injuries, it's unlikely to happen any time soon.
MORE MacLEAN WOES
Bullets forward Don MacLean broke his thumb Saturday night in a fight at a Baltimore restaurant. MacLean, out since Dec. 12 with knee tendinitis, may miss another two months.
Opponent: Indiana Pacers
Site: Market Square Arena, Indianapolis
TV/Radio: Ch. 20/WWLG (1360 AM), WTEM (570 AM)
Outlook: A game away from the NBA Finals last season, the Pacers are second in the Central Division behind Cleveland. G Reggie Miller is Indiana's top scorer, averaging 19.0 points before scoring 37 in last night's loss to New Jersey. F Dale Davis was 10th in the league in rebounds (10.5). The Bullets lost three of four games to the Pacers last season.