Even when he was a perennial all-star selection, Spencer Haywood never played as well in the playoffs as he is playing now, a few weeks after his 33rd birthday.
Although he has a career 20.5 scoring average, the 6-foot-9 forward's best playoff series was with the New York Knicks in 1977-78, when he averaged 16.2 points for six games. After six playoff games this year, he leads the Bullets' scoring at 19.8.
"Spencer has just been sensational," Coach Gene Shue said yesterday, assessing Haywood's play in the first four games against the Celtics. The Bullets trail the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series, 3-1, going into Wednesday night's game in Boston, despite Haywood's 22.5 point average against the Celtics.
"We're going to Spencer more because he's shooting well and Greg (Ballard) is working so hard on defense," Shue continued. "He's given us the scoring up front we need."
Haywood has been in the playoffs with Seattle, New York and Los Angeles. He suffered with the Knicks through a four-game sweep by Philadelphia and he was with the Lakers through much of their championship drive two years ago. He's seen it all and he's not ready to admit defeat.
"This series isn't over," he said. "We'll be ready in Boston. We're improving every game and they haven't whipped us yet. We should have won both games at home and they know it. We had the opportunity to do it.
"We're going to go to Boston and get 'em. I might get in trouble for saying this, but we proved we can beat them up there. The Celtics are playing as tough a team as they'll face in the playoffs this season. Our defense is as good as anybody's."
In the last three games against the Celtics, Haywood has scored 26, 19 and a playoff career-high 28 points. If he had made a 12-foot shot in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter Sunday, the Bullets would have won by two and tied the series at 2-2.
"That one will be with me for a long time," he said. "I should have put it in. I was ready to do it, I wanted the shot; it just didn't drop."
Haywood says he has tried to assert himself more and provide leadership during the playoff because the Bullets have so many young players. "I've been around and the other guys know it," he said. "I'm a leader type. Now on this team, our leadership comes from the coach, but I try to help by example."
It didn't take Haywood long to set an example Sunday. He scored four points in less than three minutes as the Bullets took an 8-2 lead. He had 12 when Jeff Ruland replaced him with 1:41 left in the quarter.
"We didn't want Boston to open up a quick lead like they did Saturday," Haywood said. "I wanted to try to get something going early."
Many of Haywood's points came against the Celtics' best defensive player, 6-11 Kevin McHale, who said afterward: "Spencer's range makes a defender's job tough. He's the type of guy who you don't want to try for blocks against because he'll go around you. Getting a hand in his face and staying on top of him is more important."
With Haywood's consistent scoring and Ballard outscoring Larry Bird, 38-24, while limiting the all-star forward to only seven of 24 shots over the weekend, the Bullets managed to stay even up front. However, they have received very little help in the back court.
After making his dramatic three-pointer in the closing seconds to win the second game in Boston, 103-102, Frank Johnson has made four of 28 shots. In 43 minutes Sunday, he had only four points. Don Collins failed to score in 21 minutes Saturday and had just six points Sunday.
"We're not getting any outside shooting and that hurts our inside game," Shue said. "With no threat outside, the Celtics have been able to sag back on our big men."
Although neither team relies heavily on the guards to score, the Bullets offense operates more effectively if the defense has to respect the long-range shooting of Johnson and Kevin Grevey, who made only four of 11 shots over the weekend.