The defense, which carried the Bullets through a confidence-building seven-game winning streak recently, collapsed in yesterday's 124-115 loss to the Denver Nuggets, Washington's fifth straight defeat.
After building a four-game advantage over New York and New Jersey before the All-Star Game break, the Bullets have fallen in danger of tumbling past both into the Atlantic Division cellar. Coach Gene Shue's club begins a six-game road trip starting Tuesday in San Antonio.
Top Bullet scorer Greg Ballard, whose injury has coincided with the slump--he has missed the last 3 1/2 games--will accompany the Bullets to Texas, but Shue feels the veteran forward may not be effective in back-to-back contests with the Spurs and Dallas because he has not played since Tuesday and he is a rhythm shooter.
"It's improving, but I still can't put any weight on the foot," Ballard said. "I've got two strained ligaments in the foot and another in the ankle. If I come back too soon, I could break the foot and then what good would I be?"
The only encouraging thing about the latest loss was the performance of Charles Davis. The second-round draft choice from Vanderbilt made nine of 15 shots, scored 20 points and had nine rebounds playing 32 minutes in Ballard's spot.
"Charlie played hard," Shue remarked. "Maybe he'll come on in the second half and understand what he has to do. I would like to see him at small forward. He has the ability to run the break well."
The Bullets' fast break was in high gear at Capital Centre, but usually it was simply a defensive mechanism against high-scoring Denver, which exceeded its season average of 123 points per game.
The constantly moving Nuggets, who must feel uncomfortable if they don't shoot within 10 seconds, blew past the Bullets for 18 layups out of their 39 baskets and drew 52 foul shots. They made 46.
"We didn't have good defensive position, that's why they got all those layups," Shue said. "Denver's style is different. They create a lot of offensive action and you have to be in the right position or you're going to commit fouls."
None of the Bullets fouled out, but their three best rebounders, Rick Mahorn, Jeff Ruland and Spencer Haywood (24 points), all carried four fouls midway through the third quarter.
The Nuggets' 52 free throws were nine more than anybody had shot against the Bullets this season and 35 more than Washington took in this game. The Bullets outscored Denver, 100-78, from the field.
"Sure, we draw a lot of fouls, we always do," said Denver Coach Doug Moe. "We work very hard to get fouled. We're always moving, passing, cutting, we don't stand around. Foul shots have won us a lot of games. We don't set up, we just keep going to the hoop. That's why we lead the league in free throws."
The Nuggets have converted 1,380 of 1,733 foul shots this season compared to 1,075 of 1,368 for second-place Chicago. Denver's .796 percentage also leads the league.
"I know the fans get upset when we shoot so many free throws," said Dan Issel, who had 25 points. "But that's the way we play. Washington was a bit slow setting up and just couldn't stay with us. Once you get half a step on your man, he either has to let you go or foul you."
Since Moe succeeded Donnie Walsh, his present assistant, the Nuggets have assumed the character of his successful San Antonio teams.
"It's a fun way to play," said 12th-year pro Issel. "Everybody likes to run and shoot. It's the only way we can win. If we slowed down and tried to muscle with guys like Mahorn and Ruland, we'd get murdered.
"Before Doug took over, we used to run when it was available," the 33-year-old center continued. "Now we run when it's available, when it's not available and at halftime."
The Nuggets came out gunning and made 13 of their first 20 shots to take a 30-22 lead. The Bullets, with Kevin Grevey netting eight of his 16 points in the second quarter, pulled even at 49 and trailed by only 60-59 at intermission.
"We didn't play that well in the first half," Moe said. "But in the second half, we got our big men cutting more and our offense was more effective."
There were three ties and six lead changes in the third period before the Nuggets scored nine straight points to take a 90-85 lead. The Bullets came back again as Don Collins came off the bench for six points in two minutes, the last of these tying the game at 105 with 5:19 to play.
With Kiki Vandeweghe and Ken Higgs scoring four points each, Denver scored 10 of the next 12 points to take an eight-point lead. The Bullets never again threatened.