Most National Basketball Association coaches are reluctant to make changes, unless forced to, once their teams reach the playoffs.
Not Washington Bullets Coach Gene Shue. He devised a special defense to stop the New Jersey Nets' Ray Williams and pulled a page from his "How I Coached the 76ers When I Had All of Those Superstars" book to generate more offense.
Both schemes worked Tuesday night just as Shue thought they would, and the Bullets raced past the perplexed Nets, 96-83, to take a 1-0 lead in their best-of-three Eastern Conference series. The Bullets can eliminate the Nets Friday night at Capital Centre in a game that starts at 8:30. If they do, Sunday afternoon they'll be in Boston for the opener of round two of the playoffs; if not, it's back to New Jersey that day for a third game with the Nets.
The odds favor the Bullets against the Nets because in the NBA's previous 24 miniseries, the team that has won the first game has won the series 21 times.
"You make little changes here and there, do adjusting all the time," said Shue. "We didn't do anything that dramatically different."
The effect certainly was dramatic, however.
The defensive strategy on Williams was expected from Shue, who got his team this far by preaching defense. He watched last Saturday night as Williams scored 52 points against Detroit and realized that if any of the Nets could hurt the Bullets it was Williams.
The Bullets devoted most of their last practice before the game to working on stopping Williams. Shue told Don Collins to deny Williams the ball as much as possible or, once he got it, to force him into the middle, where there was help, or force him to shoot from a distance.
Collins made Williams shoot from about a foot farther than he was used to, and the guard missed 15 of his 19 shots.
New Jersey Coach Larry Brown said he was expecting "something special" in a defense against Williams, but the offensive twist came as a surprise.
All season Shue has said he doesn't have creative, one-on-one stars. But in the biggest game of the season so far, he employed plays to turn it into a two-on-two contest, and they worked.
What Shue did was bring three players out high on the right side of the basket and let Frank Johnson and Jeff Ruland play two on two on the other side against Len Elmore and Darwin Cook. In the fourth period, the Bullets scored six straight points off that alignment.
The first time the Nets tried to stop it by doubleteaming, the Bullets quickly swung the ball to the weak side and Greg Ballard made an open 15-footer.
Although Shue appeared to make all the right moves Tueday evening, playoff games still are won on the front lines, and that's where the Bullets won the first game.
The Nets' Buck Williams had 13 rebounds and blocked a shot, but with the rest of that all-Maryland front line of Albert King and Len Elmore, the Nets lacked the muscle to contend with Rick Mahorn and Jeff Ruland. Ruland equaled his pro high with 20 rebounds and scored 18 points. Mahorn scored all 16 of his points in the second half and had six rebounds and four blocked shots.
The Bullets so controlled the inside in the last period that the Nets got only two offensive rebounds as they missed 14 of 20 shots.
The Bullets got unexpected help from Kevin Grevey. He has a painful abdominal muscle pull and wasn't expected to play much. But when Collins got into foul trouble, Grevey played 22 minutes, scored 10 points and had three assists; the Bullets' reserves outscored the Nets', 34-9.
"I didn't want to get left out of this," said Grevey. "We're going places."