Just when it looked as if they were ready to disappear from the playoff picture, the Washington Bullets pulled themselves together, at least for a night, for a 96-90 victory over the New York Knicks, one of the hottest teams in the National Basketball Association.
The Bullets had lost 16 of their previous 17 games on the road and had lost to the Knicks, 106-100, Friday night at Capital Centre.
The major differences in the two games were that tonight the Bullets instead of the Knicks made the pressure shots and the Bullets committed only 11 turnovers, comapared to 26 Friday.
Tonight's outcome, in front of 13,969 at Madison Square Garden, improved the Bullets to 30-36, but Atlanta also won, over Utah, so the Hawks still lead the Bullets by five games in the race for the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
"We really wanted this ball game," guard Ricky Sobers said. "We knew that for us to get back in the right frame of mind to make the playoffs, we had to have this game. This could be the type of game that gets us off on a streak."
The Bullets have only 16 games remaining and because they also lost the season series to the Hawks, Atlanta would get the playoff spot if the clubs end the regular season tied.
The Bullets also lost the season series to the fifth-place Knicks and trail them by 5 1/2.
Washington has completed its games with New York and has one remaining with Atlanta.
The Knicks came into tonight's contest with an eight-game winning streak, their longest in three years, and had won 22 of their last 26. But when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter, Washington scored on eight of its last 10 possessions, while the Knicks had no field goals and only two free throws in the last three minutes.
Greg Ballard made four straight long jump shots in the final five minutes, and Jeff Ruland's short jump shot over Bill Cartwright with 28 seconds left settled the result. Ruland's shot, which hit the side of the rim and bounced up and in, gave the Bullets a 94-90 lead.
On the Knicks' next possession, Ernie Grunfeld, a hero on Friday night at Capital Centre, threw the ball away trying to get it inside to Cartwright.
Sobers made two free throws with 17 seconds to play to end the scoring.
Sobers totaled 20 points, including two of two three-point shots and had seven assists.
Ruland led the Bullets with 25 points and made 15 rebounds. Ballard scored 19 points.
Bernard King had 27 for the Knicks.
"We've really been playing well lately and this was another case of us being in the game at the end, only this time we got the good bounce," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "We're just thankful we won. We've been playing hard, but haven't had any luck."
The Knicks led by nine points with 3:42 left in the third period, but Sobers and Ruland got the Bullets closer, 69-64, going into the fourth quarter.
Frank Johnson, who had 10 assists, made two free throws and then stole a Sly Williams pass. The Bullets eventually got two free throws from Joe Kopicki from that possession, to lead for the first time, 77-75.
The lead changed six times after that and the Bullets pulled from a tie at 88 when Sobers made a 16-footer and, after an offensive foul on King, Ballard made a 20-footer for a 92-88 lead with 2:10 left.
Truck Robinson made two free throws with 51 seconds to play, but the Knicks never scored again.
"The Bullets played extremely physical and when the chips were on the line they got the job done," New York Coach Hubie Brown said. "In the last quarter, Ricky Sobers and Greg Ballard made pressure play after pressure play. We had all kinds of opportunities, easy opportunities, but the ball didn't fall."