In the midst of a tumultuous season and reports from around the NBA that they no longer are the feared team they once were, the Washington Bullets take on another slumping team, the Houston Rockets, tonight at Capital Centre.
The mood at yesterday's Bullet practice at Bowie State was somewhat subdued, the same day a story in The Washington Post quoted NBA sources as saying the Bullets are crumbling.
"We'll find out what we're made of now," said Coach Dick Motta.
Things are not looking particularly bright for the immediate future, however. Forward Bob Dandridge is ailing with assorted injuries and won't play tonight. It is not known he will return to action.
Dandridge spent most of yesterday's practice session in the whirlpool, trying to ease pain in his back and knee.
"I don't know how long I'll be out," Dandridge said. "I just want to get over these nagging injuries."
Greg Ballard is expected to start in Dandridge's place tonight against the Rockets, who, like the Bullets, have had their problems this season. They have lost five in a row and eight of their last nine on the road.
The big man for the Rockets is last year's most valuable player, Moses Malone. He leads the league in rebounding (15.7 a game) and is fourth in scoring (26.7) average).
Former Bullet guard Tom Henderson was activated by the Rockets yesterday after being on the injured list for 10 games with strained ligaments in his big toe.
Forward Rudy Tomjanovich has a pulled Achilles tendon and did not make the trip.
The Rockets start a lineup of Malone at center, Rick Barry and Major Jones at forwards and Calvin Murphy and rookie Allen Leavell at the guards.
Murphy and Leavell have had their problems, mainly because of their size. Murphy is 5-foot-10 and Leavell 6-1. Speed and quickness is their game, but they have struggled on defense.
Leavell is averaging 10.6 points and 6.1 rebounds as a starter in the last 11 games.
Ballard, one of only four Bullets to play in all 29 games this season, is fifth on the team with a 10.5 scoring average.
He started five games when Dandridge was out with injuries and another at the other forward spot when Elvin Hayes was hurt.
"I'll just try to do the same thing I did before," Ballard said. "There isn't that much difference in starting and in coming off the bench for me."
Ballard is a better rebounder and inside player than Dandridge. The Bullets, in essence, have two big forwards on the court when Ballard and Hayes are playing.
"I'll take the shot from outside, but if it isn't there, I'll try to go inside because that's where I like to be," Ballard said.
"The biggest difference in my game and Bobby's is that my strength is on the offensive boards and his is outside. He also handles the ball a lot more than I do."
Finding minutes for Ballard has been one of Motta's goals all season and the coach doesn't feel uncomfortable when Ballard starts.
Even when the Bullets have struggled, which has been often this season, Ballard has been steady. He is not spectacular, but a hard worker.
"I've never been disappointed in Greg on or off the court," Motta said.
The Bullets (13-16) have lost six of their last eight home games. They are 11 games behind Boston in the Atlantic Division.
After tonight's game they will be off until Christmas Day when they host the Philadelphia 76ers.