The full impact of the Bullets' loss Saturday night in San Antonio may not be felt completely for at least another month, when the two teams are a good bet to hook up in a playoff series.
Washington already knows the short-term effect of the defeat. Unless San Antonio folds down the stretch, the Spurs should coast to the NBA Central Division title and grab the home-court advantage in a best-of-seven showdown, against Washington if the Bullets make it that far.
But in their desire to win Saturday ningt, the Spurs revealed the bulk of the strategy they probably will employ against their Central pursuer in the playoffs. The Bullets' ability to capitalize on this sneak preview could well determine how they do against the Spurs in the projected series.
San Antonio employed a sagging, overplay defense in the game, the first time the Spurs have used that strategy against Washington this year. Instead their offensive boards, they were tapping the ball out ot the guards. And they dusted off a tactic the Bullets usually see in playoffs against any opponent: they laid off Wes Unseld and clogged the middle, double-teaming Elvin Hayes and Bobby Dandridge to cut off Washington's inside scoring.
"There are a few games every year that you put special emphasis on," said San Antonio Coach Doug Moe. "This was one of them. We've used our overplay defense only a couple of times this year but it worked beautifully in this game. That was our best defensive effort of the season.
"We also rebounded much better than we have against them. We didn't let them have easy shots inside and we made them work on the boards. You can't give them easy baskets with their big men being so good.
"We got them out of their patterns. We didn't let them rest. They had to fight to make every pass. We responded when we had to."
The Spurs performed at playoff intensity. They attacked on defense and got good performances from their bench in winning the second of two meetings between the teams in San Antonio. The Bullets, in contrast, seemed lethargic and unsure of their offense.
"Even though we wound up splitting our four games (the Bullets won both in Washington), I still like how things turned out, said Moe, whose club beat the Bullets at home by 20 and 15 points. "In a playoff against them, all we would have to do is win every game on our home court and that would be the series."
Although the Bullets are convinced that they can win in San Antonio - "with the right rest and determination, we should be able to do it," said Elvin Hayes - Coach Dick Motta realizes they must be a lot sharper than Saturday night.
He was visibly upset over his players' lack of intensity. Motta is a battler and he expects his club to react accordingly. But he was left pleading with his athletes early in the third quarter "to get your heads back in the game". They never did.
To beat San Antonio, Motta feels the Bullets must make George Gervin work at both ends of the floor while preventing any of his teammates from having big games.
When the Bullets defeated the Spurs in Capital Centre March 1, Gervin had 34 points but no one else scored more than 15 and he labored to defend against Kevin Grevey. Saturday night, Gervin had 33 but this time Larry Kenon kicked in with 19 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists; play-maker Mike Gale 16 points and six assists, and center Bill Paultz 14 points and 11 rebounds.
And while Grevey made 28 points, he was kept under control for three periods. He said, "I didn't do a good job of working Gervin. Dick wanted me to get him low along the baseline so we could run him through picks and screens and get him tired but San Antonio wouldn't let us run those plays the way we wanted."
The Bullets also are concerned with the inconsistent paly of Tom Henderson, who wnet two of 11 from the floor, couldn't get the team into its offense and had difficulty stopping Gale in the second half. When Henderson has played well this season, the Bullets usually have won: when he has defensive breakdowns and turnover pdoblems, they have struggled.
It is apparent that the Bullets need a healthy Larry Wright by playoff time to spell Henderson, especially if Motta is looking for added scoring from his backcourt. Wright is slowed by a sprained wrist, healing more slowly than expected, and he played only nine minutes Saturday.
Mitch Kupchak also looms as an important playoff figure. If San Antonio decides to lay off Unseld and clog the middle with Paultz or reserve center Mike Green, Motta will go to Kupchak, a better offensive threat than Unseld. Kupchak, who had 16 points Saturday night, is too quick for Paultz and too strong for Green.
The Bullets realize that before they get back to the Spurs, they have other business to take care of.
With 17 games left, they are in a virtual tie with New York for the third playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. If they finish third, they wind up playing the No. 6 team (either Cleveland, New Orleans or Atlanta) best-of-three, the winner advancing to a series with the No. 2 club, Probably San Antonio.