As the days dwindle to a precious few in this surprising season for the Washington Bullets, the playoff picture is as muddled as ever.
With eight games remaining, the Bullets can earn the top playoff spot in the Eastern Conference behind powers Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, or they can end three notches lower and out of the money.
"We have a tough schedule ahead," Coach Gene Shue said yesterday after extending practice an extra 30 minutes at Bowie State. "What we need now is a nice little winning streak to eliminate Detroit."
Although the players constantly talk about finishing fourth and gaining the home-court advantage against the fifth-place team, Shue admits his first concern is simply qualifying for a playoff berth. Once Detroit (2 1/2 games behind at 35-40) is eliminated, the Bullets will be assured of one of the conference's six playoff berths.
Going into tonight's game with Cleveland--losers of 11 straight--at Capital Centre (WTOP-1500, 8:05), the Bullets are tied with Atlanta for the last two places with 37-37 records. New Jersey, which has won four straight, is fourth, 1 1/2 games ahead with a 39-36 mark.
The Nets capitalized on the opportunity of playing listless New York and Cleveland in three of their last four games. This week they will play Philadelphia and Boston and could easily lose their advantage.
The Bullets, after three straight road losses, should be able to beat Cleveland for the fifth time in six tries and then handle Indiana on the road Wednesday.
"We had a little lapse; now we've got to get going again," forward Greg Ballard said. "Time is running out and we can't afford any more letdowns."
Shue was not pleased with his offense in a two-point loss at New Jersey Friday night and a 106-101 defeat Saturday in Atlanta, but said he's not planning any lineup changes.
Frank Johnson has been a disappointment recently since replacing John Lucas at point guard. The rookie from Wake Forest has made only nine of 26 shots and has just 13 assists in the last three games.
"It's like he's playing in a daze," Shue said. "I don't know what's wrong with Frank."
Johnson admits he's had trouble getting into the flow of the game, particularly in the first quarter. He says he is conscious of getting all the Bullets involved in the offense, but often seems hesitant, unsure whether to look for his shot first or try to set up his teammates.
"A lot of different guys are making suggestions," Johnson said. "I'm just taking a little bit from everybody. I'm learning a lot every game."
Shue's alternative is to switch back to Lucas, who had 13 points and 13 assists in Atlanta. The former Maryland star often is more effective coming off the bench and picking up the tempo, however, and the problem is the team's falling behind and not being able to come back.
"It's very important in these last games to get off to a good start," Shue said. "I thought after Atlanta lost that tough game to Boston the night before we played them (110-107), they might not be ready early in our game. They weren't, but neither were we, and once they got a 14-4 lead we couldn't make it up."
With John Drew, Dan Roundfield and Tree Rollins healthy again, Atlanta appears to have more talent than the Nets or Bullets. Also, the Hawks' schedule seems easier: they have left only one game with a team with a winning record (Philadelphia).
"Every day is a new day," Shue said, forcing a grin. "It's (a playoff spot) ours, if we're willing to work hard enough for it. But, of course, I'm sure the other teams feel the same way."