Jeff Ruland wasn't dominating, but he certainly was effective in his return last night and the Bullets celebrated with a 95-89 victory over the New Jersey Nets at Capital Centre.
Ruland missed the previous two games with a dislocated wrist and although severely hampered by the injury , he scored 17 points and had 11 rebounds in 41 minutes as the Bullets won for the ninth time in their last 10 games and moved a step closer to the playoffs.
The Bullets' biggest stars, however, were in the back court as Frank Johnson and Ricky Sobers combined to score the Bullets' last 11 points to secure the victory.
The Atlanta Hawks (40-37) lost to the Boston Celtics, 117-95, and the New York Knicks (39-36) beat Detroit, 110-107, in overtime, so the Hawks and Knicks are virtually tied, one game ahead of the Bullets (38-37), in the race for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
Washington plays at Detroit tonight and New York is at Boston. Atlanta is idle.
The Bullets led by as many as 17 points in the first half last night, but the Nets kept pecking away and finally cut the advantage to 84-83 with 4 minutes 11 seconds left after Buck Williams (21 points and 15 rebounds) scored four points in a row, and Albert King (22 points) followed with another basket.
Neither team scored again, however, until Johnson made a 16-footer with 1:19 left.
Johnson, who scored 26 points, then stole the ball from Mike Gminski as Gminski turned to take a short hook shot in the lane. Johnson drove the length of the floor for an uncontested layup and an 88-83 Bullets lead with 58 seconds left.
Williams got the Nets back within three with two free throws, but Sobers made one of two free throws with 37 seconds left.
Darwin Cook threw the ball out of bounds on New Jersey's next possession and Sobers made two free throws after he was fouled by Cook, for a 93-87 lead.
Williams made a hook shot, but Sobers was fouled by Eddie Phillips and again made both free throws to keep the lead at six points.
Phillips and Johnson traded baskets in the last four seconds.
"In the first half we played great defense and had many offensive opportunities, but didn't take advantage of them," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "We had a 16-point lead at halftime, but I didn't feel comfortable about it and my thoughts happened. The Nets came back on us and we were fortunate to win."
Shue said he was relieved to get Ruland back.
"That wasn't the Jeff we're used to, but I'm glad to have him," said Shue.
Ruland made only four of 12 shots and missed a number of layups, but did make nine of 11 free throws.
"It's really sore," Ruland said of his wrist. "That's why I missed so many layups. It's a lot better than it was, but I'm not up to par. I still can't bend it. If these games weren't all so important, I might not have risked playing."
Ruland had his wrist heavily taped when the game started, but by the second quarter had stripped off the wrapping.
"I just couldn't do anything with all that (stuff) on," he said.
Shue credited the Bullets' defense for the victory and one play in particular, the one on which Johnson stole the ball from Gminski.
"They were trying to run a play for Albert King," said Shue, "but Greg Ballard was overplaying him so well, they couldn't get the ball to him, so they kept passing it around until the shot clock almost ran out."
They finally got the ball to Gminski in the lane, but three Bullets were around him and when he turned to shoot a hook, Johnson stripped him of it and took off the other way.
"It was all instinct," said Johnson.