Here are the strengths and weaknesses of the Washington Bullets and New Jersey Nets, who will meet tonight in New Jersey in the first game of a best-of-three NBA playoff series. The Nets won the season series, 4-2, winning three of the last four, but both of the Bullets' victories were by wide margins.
NEW JERSEY: The Nets have two excellent long-range shooters, Ray Williams and Darwin Cook, both threats from three-point range. Cook will start in place of playmaker Foots Walker, who injured an ankle Saturday night. Surprisingly, forward Mike O'Koren has the best three-point percentage, .348 (eight for 23), but he is more of a threat driving to the basket. Williams is an excellent one-on-one player, and that is what Washington Coach Gene Shue fears most late in the game. The 6-foot-3 guard draws lots of fouls and has made 83 percent of his foul shots. Buck Williams, the team's second leading scorer (15.2), is only effective close to the basket, but his .574 percentage ranks fourth in the league. The other starting forward, Albert King, has been erratic, but his medium-range jumper is accurate. Center Len Elmore can score from 15 feet. The team shooting percentage is .482.
WASHINGTON: Greg Ballard is the Bullets' most dependable outside shooter, although neither Spencer Haywood nor Kevin Grevey can be left alone. The best percentage shooters are Jeff Ruland (.561) and Rick Mahorn (.507), who usually get the ball near the basket. Don Collins has averaged 17.3 points in the five games since starting in Grevey's spot. He doesn't have much of an outside shot, but is one of the quickest in the league driving to the basket. Frank Johnson has a poor percentage (.414), but has excellent range and is a three-point threat. He drives well and draws fouls. Unless Grevey regains his touch in a hurry, Shue will have nobody except Ruland to bring off the bench and add instant offense. Team shooting percentage is .474.
The edge to New Jersey.
NEW JERSEY: It didn't take long for Buck Williams to establish his superiority here. The rookie from Maryland was third in the league with 12.3 per game. As a team, however, the Nets are not particularly strong rebounders. Elmore operates around the foul line and neither King nor O'Koren has the bulk to match the Bullets at forward. Reserve James Bailey does a good job and is the team's best shot-blocker. Ray Williams rebounds better than any of the Bullets' guards.
WASHINGTON: Despite averaging only 27 minutes a game, Ruland leads the team with 9.3 per game. Mahorn, although often in foul trouble, is close at 8.8 and is an intimidating shot-blocker. The Bullets have a big edge at small forward where Ballard gets 8.6 a game, but aren't close at the other spot where Haywood averages only six. Aside from Ruland, there's not much off the bench and the guards don't get many, either.
Nevertheless, the advantage goes to Washington.
NEW JERSEY: Coach Larry Brown preaches defense consistently, but often nobody seems to be listening. The front line is weak with two rookie forwards and Elmore, who is not an intimidating center. Ray Williams has never worried too much about defense and Cook earned a spot on the roster last season because he's a good long-range shooter. O'Koren works hard and can use his quickness against Ballard. Bailey is the best defender around the basket. The Nets ranked ninth in defense.
WASHINGTON: This is Shue's delight and how well the Bullets play it will determine how far they advance. Individually, the team is mediocre, particularly in the back court, but the players help out well as a team. Mahorn is the catalyst. He shuts down the middle with his bulk and blocks shots. Ballard is sound and even Haywood is trying. The Bullets ranked third.
They get the nod here.
NEW JERSEY: With Walker and Otis Birdsong injured, Brown will have to use O'Koren as his third guard. The Nets were so desperate for back court help yesterday they signed Edmund Sherod, their fourth-round draft choice who spent the season in the Continental League. Things are better in the front court, with O'Koren almost splitting the playing time with King, and Bailey relieving Elmore. Mike Gminski, Sam Lacey and Jan van Breda Kolff don't figure to see much action.
WASHINGTON: Ruland is one of the best sixth men in the league, averaging 15 points and nine rebounds. Grevey is not used to being a substitute, and Shue will never know if the veteran guard will bring his jumper with him. Charles Davis might help in short spurts, but the Bullets can't expect anything out of the rest of their reserves.
Ruland and Grevey give Washington a slight edge over O'Koren and Bailey.
Both teams finished strongly. The Nets won their final five, and nine of 11. After beating Boston Friday night, Brown said: "We can't play any better." The Bullets won six of their last eight. If the Bullets play the tenacious defense they're capable of and Frank Johnson can control the tempo, keeping his team in a half-court offense, the Bullets can win. However, if the Nets gain a rebounding advantage, get their running game going and shake Ray Williams loose, they will prevail. Professional oddsmakers pick the Nets by four.
PHILADELPHIA vs. ATLANTA
Shaken after the 76ers were outrebounded, 52-38, in a 103-88 loss at Atlanta April 9, Coach Billy Cunningham said yesterday he would start both his 7-footers, Caldwell Jones and Darryl Dawkins, in Wednesday night's first game at Philadelphia. The teams split six games this season, but the Hawks won two of the last three after Dan Roundfield and Tree Rollins recovered from injuries and held the 76ers to fewer than 100 points four times.
SEATTLE vs. HOUSTON
The SuperSonics wanted no part of Moses Malone, who had 86 points and 45 rebounds in his last two games against them. Seattle has been struggling lately, losing four of its final six, mainly because Gus Williams is playing out of control. Seattle won the season series, 3-2, but Houston proved last year it is an excellent playoff team because it slows things down and gets the ball to Malone.
DENVER vs. PHOENIX
Here are two teams that never do well in the playoffs. Denver doesn't play enough defense and Phoenix isn't physical enough. Phoenix won the season series, 3-2, but the Nuggets have the home-court advantage. The Suns won only 13 of 41 road games this season. The Las Vegas line has the Nuggets by four.