It took all 82 games to do it, but the Washington Bullets made it to the National Basketball Association playoffs for the 12th straight year today with a bussinesslike 93-87 victory over the New Jersey Nets at Rutgers Athletic Center.
There was little emotion in their cramped dressing room afterward, as the Bullets immediately started thinking and talking about the Philadelphia 76ers.
The team will meet in the first round of the playoffs, a best-of-three series beginning Wednesday at the Spectrum. The second game will be at Capital Centre Friday night and a third game, if necessary, will be played at the Spectrum Sunday afternoon.
"It might be that we can't beat them," Bullet captain Wes Unseld said, "but I don't think they look forward to playing us."
Today's victory gave the Bullets a 39-43 record, the same as the New York Knicks', but the Bullets took the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference because of their better record within the conference.
The knicks ended their season Thursday and the Bullets needed victories over Atlanta Friday at Capital Centre and over the Nets today to gain the playoffs.
They won both, but in strikingly different fashion.
Friday, they exploded out of the blocks, playing with emotion and aggressiveness, and never let the Hawks get into the game. But, as Unseld said, "You have games like that only once or twice a year."
Today, they came out more subdued and seemed to play tentatively.
A big third quarter, in which Greg Ballard with 13, Kevin Grevey with nine and Elvin Hayes with seven scored all 29 of their team's points, gave the Bullets a seemingly safe 74-63 lead going into the final 12 minutes.
They had led by only five, 45-40, at the half.
And when Hayes opened the final period with a turnaround jumper for a 13-point Bullet lead, the many Knick fans in the crowd of 8,351 started heading back across the Hudson River.
But the Nets were not done, thanks in large part to a former Bullet, Roger Phegley. Phegley, working against Grevey and then John Williamson, the man he was traded for, scored nine points in the first three minutes of the period as the Nets cut the lead to 78-76.
Phegley sank two three-point shots in that span and the Nets were getting the ball to him every time down the floor.
New Jersey closed to one point at 82-81 on a 20-footer by Eddie Jordan with 5:05 left. But Hayes made two free throws and followed them with a jump shot to get the lead back to 86-81 with 3:54 to go.
Phegley scored his 12th and 13th points of the period on a 20-footer and Jordan made a 20-footer to offset Grevey's 16-foot shot and the Bullets led by only 88-85 with 3:03 left.
Then, after an offensive foul was calld on Ballard and Winford Boynes missed a jumper, Grevey came up with the biggest basket of the game.
Hayes rebounded Boynes' miss and the Bullets hustled the ball upcourt. They ran a play for Ballard, but Phegley, who knows the Bullet plays, cheated toward Ballard, leaving Grevey open just beyond the three-point line at the left top of the key.
He took Kevin Porter's pass, drilled in the three-pointer for a 91-85 lead and the Nets were done, the Bullets were in the playoffs.
Grevey led the Bullets scorers with 23 points, making three of the six three-point shots he tried.
"I had my feet set and I was facing the basket, so I took the three-point shot," Grevey said of the basket that unraveled the nets.
Grevey has made 22 of the 38 three-pointers he has tried in the last nine games.
"I feel good at the three-point line," he said. "There's no reason why I can't hit three or four of them a game. It's a very high percentage shot for me."
The Bullets did have troubles early in the game.
Hayes missed nine of his first 10 shots and was being outplayed by rookie Cliff Robinson. Unseld, Ballard and Grevey picked up some of the slack until Hayes got untracked in the second half.
"I felt real tight before the game," Grevey said. " had butterflies. I thought we could win, but I was still worried. We were playing on the road, at 4 in the afternoon, which is an odd time. These baskets are real tight here, too, and Wes hates to play on this floor because it's so hard.
"I think we all came out tight and didn't really get into the flow of the game until the third quarter."
"I thought we had pretty good poise," Coach Dick Motta said. "I hope we just don't breathe a sigh of relief just because we're in (the play-offs)."
That was the sentiment of most of the players.
"I think we're just as good as Philadelphia," Grevey said, "even though our record doesn't show it. The thing to our disadvantage is that they think they can beat us, so they'll have a lot of confidence."
The 76ers won the season series with the Bullets, 5-1.
"What worries me most right now is that some of us might be satisfied just to have made the playoffs," Grevey said. "I'm not. This is a three-game series coming up and anything can happen in a short series."
Said Ballard, "If we're satisfied just to be in, it's going to be tough series for us. But if we're still hungry, we'll be okay."