The Washington Bullets' eight-game winning streak may have ended, but it served notice to the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks that they are still part of the playoff race as the National Basketball Association heads into the final two weeks of the regular season.
The Bullets lost in overtime, 120-117, to the Boston Celtics Saturday night at Capital Centre while Atlanta was beating Indiana and New York was losing to Phoenix.
The Bullets (37-37) trail the Knicks (38-36) by one game and the Hawks (40-36) by two. Only two of the three will be among the six playoff qualifiers in the Eastern Conference.
The Bullets have one game remaining with the Hawks, next Saturday at Capital Centre, but Atlanta and New York have already clinched their season series with the Bullets. Head-to-head competition is the first tie-breaking criterion, so the Bullets, in essence, trail the Knicks by two games and the Hawks by three.
Washington and New York have eight games remaining and Atlanta six.
Even with forward Jeff Ruland out with a sprained wrist the last two games and Charles Davis incapacitated with a bad back the last three, the Bullets are still playing better than Atlanta and New York. They are 8-1 the last two weeks; Atlanta is 5-4 and New York 2-6.
"We had an incredible streak lately," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue of the just-ended winning streak, second-longest in team history. "It was only a few days ago that everyone thought we were out of the playoffs. We just have to start a new streak now.
"It was a shame to let the Boston game get away because we played so well and it was an incredible performance for us, playing without Jeff and Charles against one of the best teams in the league."
The Bullets outrebounded the Celtics, 52-42, but Larry Bird made a difficult three-point shot with two seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime. He scored eight of his 34 points in the extra period.
When Ruland hurt his wrist, it looked as if the Bullets were going out, too. He is their leading scorer (19.3), rebounder (11.1) and percentage shooter (56), and is the central figure in their low-post offense. But without him, the Bullets have opened the court more and played a running, passing game. They defeated Indiana and almost beat Boston.
They may be short on healthy players, but they certainly aren't lacking in confidence.
"The loss to Boston will just make us stronger," said Don Collins. "Jeff was in the hospital, Ricky (Sobers) was kicked out of the game and Charles was in the hospital and we still took it to them. We are going to be in the playoffs. There's no question about it."
Sobers and Boston's Charles Bradley were ejected for fighting in the third quarter.
"This streak has given us confidence as a group," said Frank Johnson, who had 24 points and nine assists against the Celtics. "We had a lot of individual confidence before. Now we know if we play together and play team ball, we can win it."
"We know we probably have to win every game the rest of the way, now, but we aren't feeling any pressure."Even if we don't make the playoffs, and I think we will, this has been an unbelievable year for us. We've had to go through a lot of changes and everyone we've counted on has come through.
"Everything that has happened has helped make us a real team and that's going to carry over to the rest of this year, through the playoffs and into next year."
Before Saturday's game with the Hawks, the Bullets will play the New Jersey Nets at Capital Centre Tuesday, the Detroit Pistons at the Silverdome Wednesday and the Celtics in Boston Friday.
Shue said he hopes to have Ruland back for Tuesday's game, but he is uncertain when Davis will return.
The Hawks will be host to Boston Tuesday and Chicago Friday before coming to Capital Centre Saturday. The Knicks will be at home against Detroit Tuesday, play at Boston Wednesday and return home to play San Antonio Friday before traveling to Philadelphia Sunday.