Frank Johnson's sprained left ankle has fully healed and he will play tonight as the Bullets open the second half of their playoff drive, taking on the Cleveland Cavaliers at Capital Centre (8:05, WTOP-1500).
Johnson, a first-round draft choice from Wake Forest, reinjured his ankle Jan. 23 at Kansas City and sat out two games last week. He went full speed in practice yesterday at Bowie State and again will share the playmaking duties with John Lucas.
Coach Gene Shue is hoping his team didn't lose momentum during the three-day All-Star Game break and will continue to play the aggressive defense that led to seven victories in the last eight games.
Following tonight's game with the lowly Cavaliers, winners of only two of 13 games last month, the Bullets will begin the toughest part of their season.
They will play in Philadelphia Wednesday, return home to face the Los Angeles Lakers Friday night and Denver Sunday afternoon, then embark on a two-week, six-game West Coast trip.
"It would be nice if we had a little cushion when we go out West," said Greg Ballard, the team's top scorer with a 20-point average. "We've been playing well and now that we're over .500 we want to stay there."
Although most coaches shudder at the thought of long trips, Shue admits that he doesn't have that concern with his young group.
"We've played very well on the road," Shue said. "On our last West Coast trip, we won two of three and lost in Los Angeles by four points. If we can keep working hard on defense and executing our plays we'll be all right."
The Bullets have defeated Cleveland three straight times this season, twice in Richfield, Ohio, following a 94-87 victory here Dec. 5. Ballard has been the most consistent scorer, getting 64 points in the three games.
The Cavaliers have been in a state of chaos all season with a coaching change and players shuffling in and out. After they lost 14 of their first 18 games, owner Ted Stepien moved Don Delaney from coach to general manager and hired Philadelphia assistant Chuck Daly to coach the team.
Since Daly took charge, the Cavaliers have won only four of 24 games, and Stepien has come close to firing his third coach in 1 1/2 seasons because Daly insists he doesn't have the talent to make the playoffs.
"I think I have spent enough money," said Stepien, who paid $800,000 for forward Scott Wedman, $700,000 for center James Edwards and $350,000 for guard Bobby Wilkerson.
"I am putting the lid on deals," the owner said last week. "We have the talent to win. Unless there is something we just can't turn down, there will be no more trades."
Daly, who knows talent from his five seasons with the 76ers, maintains that a starting lineup of Reggie Johnson and Kenny Carr at forwards, Geoff Huston and Ron Brewer in the back court and Edwards at center isn't good enough to make up the 12 or so games needed to get into the playoffs.
"Just because a guy spends a lot of money for someone doesn't mean that player has what it takes to win," the coach said. "We're doing what we can, but it's been a very disruptive season.
"I talk to him socially," Daly said when asked about reports that he wasn't talking to his boss. "I just don't want to get into strategy discussions with him. I don't want to hear how many minutes certain players should be used."
After meeting with Daly last week, Stepien said it became evident that the coach didn't believe the team had the talent to gain a playoff spot.
"I'm sorry we didn't have more time to cover that before he accepted the position," the owner said. "I feel we've got the horses. It's up to Chuck Daly to drive the most wins out of them he can."
Carr, a former North Carolina State star from De Matha High School, has been Cleveland's most consistent performer, leading the team in rebounding the last nine games and averaging 15 points.
The biggest surprise recently has been the play of Huston, who had 24 points and 27 assists in a 110-106 victory over Golden State.