Before long, we will see the best Bullets. The best Bullets' team has Bobby Dandridge at guard in the last few minutes of a game. That leaves Greg Ballard at forward and puts Dandridge with steady Jim Cleamons at guard. Suggestions of such a team were made last night when the Bullets beat Los Angeles, 103-101.
Kevin Porter is chained to the bench. The high-priced guard didn't play a second last night. The object of Dick Motta's lust for a fast-break leader, Porter has become an inanimate object here. What he did for Detroit where he bounced the ball eternally, doesn't work with forwards named Dandridge and Elvin Hayes, who like to fondle the ball themselves.
So with Porter out of sight, the Bullet guards in the last few minutes of games -- when practically all NBA victories are made -- have been Cleamons and Larry Wright. Motta keeps Kevin Grevey on the bench, too, having decided long ago that Grevey is a wonderful starter and woeful finisher.
But of the 19,635 customers at Capital Centre last night, only the most stoic avoided the quakes when Wright had the ball in hand. Wright makes things happen, and not all those things are good for the Bullets.
With 30 seconds to play last night, when the Bullets wanted the ball in Cleamons' hands, or Dandridge's there it was attached to Wright's. And what sort of predicament was he in? Well, somehow Wright was crouched, helpless, under the 747 wing span of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The 6-foot-1 guard under the 7-2 center looked uncomfortable, as if this giant bird of prey were about to pluck him off the earth and serve him for dinner. Wright, with the shot clock running down, didn't want to wind up in a forced jump ball with Abdul-Jabbar. So Wright tried a desperate pass, straight to nobody, simply out of bounds.
That gave the Lakers a chance to tie the game, which they promptly did on Abdul-Jabbar's 10-foot sky hook with 29 seconds to play. It was 101-all.
So it came to the Bullets' probable last possession, and this time Cleamons controlled the ball until Dandridge worked open across the middle, working smoothly under pressure. But his 12-footer, taken moving away from the hoop, bounced off the rim.
And there -- right there -- it seemed that Wright's ball-handling mistake had cost the Bullets a victory, for the Bullets had scored only two points in the last three minutes. Even without Magic Johnson, Los Angeles had made up a 99-93 deficit.
But when Dandridge's 12-footer bounced off, Hayes was there to get the rebound, somehow coming from the opposite side and moving under the basket, leaving Abdul-Jabbar a spectator.
And then, when it meant the most, Hayes did his best work. Instead of going up with the ball, instead of challenging Abdul-Jabbar in his sovereign territory under the net, Hayes quickly took two steps toward the free-throw line.
No big man ought to be able to do what Hayes did. Only he can do it. Two long steps, a turnaround, a fall-away jump shot from 12 feet.
Its success gave Hayes eight of the Bullets' 18 points.
But that wasn't all of Hayes' good work.
In the last three seasons, the man once maligned as a choker, a quiter who hid from action rather than take the responsibility for winning or losing -- this Hayes has done good things both offensively and defensively at the end of games.
After he made the big bucket with four seconds to play, Hayes also made a big defensive play that went unnoticed by practically everyone -- everyone except Abdul-Jabbar.
The Lakers needed a basket in those last four seconds to tie.They set up an automatic out-of-bounds play with three options.
Jamaal Wilkes, who took the inbounds pass, was to look first to Norm Nixon, the little guard who can shoot from outside.
Cleamons had Nixon covered, preventing the long-range shot.
If Wilkes couldn't get the ball to Nixon, he was to look for Abdul-Jabbar in the middle, where Abdul-Jabbar had scored the Lakers' last six points.
But Wilkes could not get the ball to the surest thing this side of Bradshaw to Swann.
Why not? "Elvin Hayes was in the middle of the lane," Abdul-Jabbar said. And Wes Unseld was behind Abdul-Jabbar, pinching the big guy against the defensive maneuver of Hayes.
So Wilkes did the last, and least, of his options. He gave the ball to Mike Cooper, a second-year guard playing in place of Earvin Johnson, who sat out the last quarter with a groin injury.
"I was supposed to go to the hole hard," Cooper said. "I went hard. But it was a tough shot (a running, leaping hook (over Dandridge, now at guard. It just didn't go down. What really hurt us, though, was that rebound Elvin got. We had it until then."
So now, for only the second time all season, the Bullets are on a winning streak. Only twice have they won as many as two straight games. This streak, like the other one two months ago, is now at four straight games.
Even if the victory was tainted by Johnson's absence in the fourth quarter -- he scores 19.5 points a game and runs the Laker offense -- the Bullets will use it as another indicator that they are getting this thing turned around.
The trading away of Tom Henderson seemed no big deal, what with Porter bringing his fast-break ball-handling magic to town, but it quickly was apparent that without Henderson absolutely no guard could play any defense worth mentioning.
And with Porter ineffective offensively, the Bullets were so panicky they took Cleamons off the Knicks' hands (giving up a third-round draft choice; the Knicks, for their part, were so anxious to get rid of a non-productive Cleamons they still are paying part of his salary).
Well, Cleamons is as good defensively as Henderson and more of an offensive threat.
So it was no mistake that, with four seconds to play last night, the Bullet guards were Cleamons and Dandridge, with Ballard and Hayes at the forwards, Unseld the center.