Kelly Tripucka, his right knee heavily taped, played his first game in seven weeks tonight and gave the Detroit Pistons a much-needed lift.
That was bad news tonight for the Washington Bullets, because Tripucka's 25 points in just 26 minutes helped the Pistons to an easy 116-100 victory that extended the Bullets' losing streak to four.
It is bad news for the long haul, too, because Detroit and Atlanta are the realistic targets if Washington is to earn a playoff berth. With tonight's defeat, the Bullets are .500, a half-game ahead of the Pistons and Hawks.
"We're just struggling along," said Washington Coach Gene Shue. "We're usually very steady defensively, but we couldn't stop them. I was very surprised at Tripucka. He had a great game for the first game back."
The Bullets scored 100 points for the first time since Dec. 18, but it was a 30-point fourth quarter during garbage time that accomplished it. The outcome was decided in the third period, when the Pistons outscored Washington by 30-17 to take an 86-70 lead.
Tripucka, idle since Nov. 24 with strained knee ligaments, had nine of those points while the Bullets, 56 percent shooters in the first half, were missing 17 of 24 shots.
"I was very anxious and I was just hoping to do something," Tripucka said. "If you had told me before the game I'd do anything like that, I'd have told you to walk back to Washington."
Kent Benson, playing for the first time since Nov. 26 after recovering from strained knee and ankle ligaments, was less spectacular for Detroit, but he managed eight points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes.
Vinnie Johnson, inserted as a substitute for struggling John Long in the first period, responded with eight quick points and finished with 24 as he made nine of 13 shots.
Washington's Kevin Grevey, whose shooting had been dreadful in recent games, was closer to the usual mark tonight, making 10 of 21, including two three-pointers, to lead Washington with 24 points. Spencer Haywood, another who has been injury-plagued, contributed 20.
Jeff Ruland helped keep the Bullets in contention in the second period with 10 points, as he shut up--at least temporarily--a group of courtside fans who picked him as their special target. The critics gained renewed inspiration in the third period, however, when Ruland was called for elbowing Bill Laimbeer.
"If they pay to get in, let them yell," Ruland said. "I'm just doing my job. He (Laimbeer) pushed me down low all night and that's how you get hurt, but the rookie ref (Mike Lauerman) wasn't having any of it. So it cost me another hundred bucks, but I'd do it again if I had to."
The Bullets' 56 percent first-half shooting was tempered by 12 turnovers, to Detroit's five. During an eight-point run by Detroit early in the second period, Washington had two apparent field goals nullified by offensive fouls. Another time, while Ruland held the ball over his head and looked to Shue for instructions, Johnson grabbed it away.
Virtually every fast-break attempt by Washington led to a turnover on an off-target pass and the Bullets missed several open layups. On two successive trips downcourt by Washington in the fourth quarter, with Detroit 20 points ahead, the 24-second buzzer sounded simultaneously with a shot by the Bullets.
"We do have difficulty coming from behind," Shue said. "The best way to come back is with a fast break, but we have to play a tempo style because of the personnel we have. We're not clever on the break."