In a series in which they have been forced to take big risks to have any chance of winning, the Washington Bullets have drawn nothing but aces against the San Antonio Spurs. Tonight, they will find out if their biggest gamble will be successful.
Washington could have wrapped up this best-of-seven quarterfinal series by winning Tuesday night in San Antonio. But the players admit they relaxed too much and the Spurs forced this sixth game at Capital Center.
Now coach Dick Motta is fretting about whether "we let them (San Antonio) off the hook," although his veterans are assuring him they will capture the 8:05 contest and take the series, 4-2.
"I know I'm not overly concerned about what happened Tuesday," said forward Bob Dandridge. "We weren't into the game as well as we have been but we knew we had a home game left. Everything will change for this game. I don't see why we shouldn't win it."
If the players cannot generate the proper intensity needed to take the series tonight, they will have to win game seven in San Antonio to advance to the semifinal round. That's a task none of them relish.
"You could see the veterans approach Tuesday's game differently than the others," said one young Bullet. "They didn't go about preparing for it the same way. Sure, it was a gamble, but they have confidence in what they can do."
Washington does have a few things in its favor tonight. The Spurs have never won in the Centre since joining the league last year and the Bullets have not lost this season before home crowds in the excess of 12,000. Tonight, about 15,000 are expected.
The Bullets also have been gambling successfully since game two in San Antonio. They risked playing the Spurs at a fast tempo and wound up winning and taking control of the series.
Dandridge, likewise, has risked drawing criticism for sitting out practices and the first game of this round, hoping his neck and groin injuries would heal.
But he has been perhaps the key player in the three victories, providing the right amount finesse and experience to balance the Bullets' muscle and bulk.
"I think I've been using common sense," he said. "Why be a hero and play or practice and make an injury so serious that you are out the rest of the series? I know my body well enough to know when to push and when to let up.
"That's the experience you get from playing in this league a long time. The playoffs are so important, you have to make sure you are in the best possible shape for them. Then you push your body as hard as you can, because you have all summer to recover.
"I know the plays, so I think it's more important to the team that I be ready for games than do something stupid in practice."
When Dandridge has been flying down court on fast breaks, feeding teammates for open layups or sinking his soft one-handers against the loose guarding of Larry Kenon, the Bullets have dominated the Spurs.
Combine his efforts with the offensive output (24 points, 13 rebounds, 57 precent shooting) and shot-blocking of Elvin Hayes during the series, mix in the outside gunning of Charlie Johnson and the rebounding and outlet passing of Wes Unseld, and the club has played better than at any time this season.
With Dandridge not dressed for the opening game and scoring only 16 points (one less than Hayes) in game five, the Spurs have conasted.
"Their two victories have been almost carbon copies," said Motta. "The second halves in both were the same. They got running, our ballhandling was awful and they pulled away.
"They haven't been fast-breaking on us off missed rebounds. But they run well on turnovers, so we have to protect the ball. I just have to hope that what happened Tuesday was human nature. It was a natural letdown."
The Spurs did at least one thing differently in game five. They got balanced scoring instead of depending on George Gervin and Kenon.
"We just didn't exert the same kind of defensive pressure we have been," said Bullet guard Tom Henderson. "You'll see better defense tonight."
Added Dandridge: "They did things on offense out of desperation. I know I saw (Mark) Olberding try some offensive moves I had never seen before. But they had to do something to win."
Motta is concerned that unpredictable play from the Spurs will make them difficult to beat.
"They didn't win 52 games on luck," he said. "They are a good team. You never know what will get them going."
Even in winning, the Bullets have had problems. After scoring 31 points in game two, Kevin Grevey has tailed off, worrying about defeinding Gervin, who is averaging 35 points in the series.
Johnson has made up for most of Grevey's scoring problems, but Motta feels he needs both guards hitting well from outside, "so we can relieve pressure on our big men inside."
If he can keep out of early foul trouble, Grevey thinks, "I should be able to get back into my game. I'm a ruhthm shooter and it's tough to get into a rhythm sitting on the bench with three quick fouls."
And Motta would like to see Mitch Kupchak, who had been in a scoring slump, build on his 16-point, eight-for-13 shooting display in Wednesday night's game.
"I told them from the start I'll take the blame for defeats and they can take the glory for winning," said Motta. "This is like a board of directors. I'm the chairman of the board. I can make decisions but they have to do the playing."
Unseld thinks Motta will be pleased by what happens tonight. "They were intense Tuesday," he said. "Tonight is our turn to be intense. And it should be there."