They were at it again, the Blues against the Reds, and as usual, the competition was fierce. There was banging and bumping, a raised voice here and there. There was spirit, enthusiasm and an obvious will to win.
It was business at usual at the Bullets' practice yesterday afternoon at Bowie State College. After Coach Gene Shue stressed defense, emphasized the execution of plays and talked briefly about the New Jersey Nets, tonight's opponent at Capital Centre (WTOP-1500 at 8:05), the fun began.
"It's like a family feud," said Jeff Ruland, about the scrimmages between the starting five, who wear red shirts, and the reserves, who wear blue. "We play these games of 10 baskets and everybody really wants to win.
"They're always close," continued the 6-foot-11, 260-pound center, who usually is the Blues' top scorer. "We're very competitive and it helps the team to have 10 guys who can give each other strong competition in practice. It makes us all work harder."
The Blues and the Reds don't carry their competition over to game nights, but if they did, the 107-103 victory Saturday night in Indiana would have been a clear-cut triumph for the reserves. In the first half they scored 40 of the team's 50 points.
Frank Johnson, the rapidly improving rookie from Wake Forest, has assumed the leadership role for the reserves. He dictates the pace, directs the offense and usually takes most of the crucial shots.
"We really go at it in practice," Johnson said, with a big grin. "Some days it's all Blue and sometimes we get our butts kicked. But usually the games are very close. We have a lot of overtimes."
The fact that Coach Gene Shue has two almost evenly matched units means two things: First, his starting unit isn't exceptionally talented. Second, he has more depth than most teams in the league.
The unit of Ruland and Jim Chones inside, Don Collins at quick forward, plus Johnson and defensive standout Garry Witts in the back court has been very effective on several occasions recently as the Bullets have won four of their last five games.
In a 129-125 victory over Detroit, Ruland contributed 16 points and Collins 14 before Johnson took charge and scored his team's last eight points. At New Jersey, Ruland had nine rebounds and Chones six as the Bullets dominated the boards, 58-43, despite the 14 hauled in by Buck Williams.
To repeat that 105-90 rout tonight, the Bullets again will have to contain the Nets' high-scoring guards, Otis Birdsong and Ray Williams. When they combine for 40 points, New Jersey almost always wins, but against the Bullets Dec. 26, Birdsong made only four of 11 shots and Williams missed on seven of nine attempts.
"We have to keep them from getting out on the break and spreading our defense," Shue said. "They rely on their guards for a lot of offense and both players have the potential to beat you."