There was more concern than happiness in the Bullet dressing room at Capital Centre yesterday, even though Washington had just wrapped up the Atlantic Division title with an eased-off 116-107 triumph over Detroit.
"I know our lack of manpower has to catch up to us eventually," said Wes Unseld, echoing the thoughts of many of his teammates. "It scares me. I tend to get stronger near the end of the season because I'm bigger than most players, but this is the time of year many start wearing down.
"When you can't be refreshed even with a day off, well, that's when you have to start worrying."
The Bullets, down to an eight-man squad again, have to play nine games over the remaining two weeks of the season, which ends April 8. Although they have a four-game lead over Seattle for the league's best record, the players say this is no time to let down.
"It is of utmost importance to us to finish off the season on a positive note," said Bob Dandridge. "We have to keep on winning at all costs. If we start relaxing we could start losing and it could have a reverse effect on us for the playoffs. And to lose out on the best record at this point would be a shame."
Signs of fatigue popped up in the second half of yesterday's game, witnessed by a fine afternoon crowd of 16,588, leaving the Bullets 21,739 fans short of breaking their attendence record.
After racing to a 65-51 halftime bulge, Washington spent the final 24 minutes making certain Detroit got no closer than six despite a 29-point, 11-assist effort from Kevin Porter.
The Bullets never were in danger of losing the game, which gave them a league-high 50 victories. Their reactions and quickness obviously were reduced compared to the opening half.
"It was a quick-paced game for awhile and I think that affected us," Unseld said. "That's why I think our manpower problems haven't really hit us yet. But our time could be coming."
At least Washington continued to play intelligently, even if bodies were dragging. With the club down to three guards, the front line had to take on an additional scoring burden and Unseld (21 points), Elvin Hayes (25) and Dandridge (21) responded with solid performances.
They were helped by the absence of Detroit center Bob Lanier, who had a bruised big toe. Without him, the Pistons were outmanned physically up front, which showed up in Washington's large rebounding advantage. Hayes, with 19 rebounds, and Unseld, with 13, had just 12 fewer than the entire Piston team.
Coach Dick Motta tried to substitute carefully for most of the game, but once Detroit closed a third-quarter deficit of 18 to 10 just before the fourth, he stayed almost strictly with starters.
The result was that six players were in for at least 24 minutes, with each member of the first unit playing at least 30 minutes.
"Fortunately," said Dandridge, "we have a team with two guys (Hayes and Unseld) who like to play a lot of minutes and now they will be able to. Now it's a combination of the coaches and players working hard to keep everyont fresh and not get into further injury problems.
"We have a mature team and coaching staff which can cope with this. You have to control the pace and not use anyone more than you have to while still making sure you win."
The roster could swell to nine with the return of Mitch Kupchak (sore back) this week. Kevin Grevey (hamstring) said yesterday he will be out for at least another week and Tom Henderson (sprained knee) is gone for at least 10 days and most likely the rest of the regular season.
Motta used Greg Ballard at guard for awhile yesterday in anticipation of foul trouble during future games. "Three is okay back there but we don't have any guard insurance any more," said the coach. "At least the injuries will prevent us from being overconfident. We have to scramble every time out."
His two starting guards, Larry Wright (17 points) and Charles Johnson (14), held up well despite extended playing time. Johnson said he welcomes the additional minutes.
"I need some added time to get my self ready for the playoffs." he said. "So this couldn't come at a better time for me. I really think that this will make us a better team in the long run because our bench is getting more work. That will make us stronger players."
The Bullets have been invited to conduct a series of clinics in China during late June and early July. The players will vote to decide whether to accept the invitation although General Manager Bob Ferry said "everyone doesn't have to go. We just need a representative number," presumably a majority of the roster.