Of all the professional sports, basketball has perhaps the most merciless schedule, one that combines intensity and length, speed and repetition. Because the best teams will play 100 games, a developing unit such as the Washington Bullets cannot afford to linger long over two close opening losses.
The Bullets lost, 117-114, to the 76ers Friday and 100-97 to the Knicks Saturday, and in both games had opportunities to win going into the final minute. A controversial technical foul in Philadelphia and the Knicks' aggressive defense were decisive in the final seconds.
For the Bullets, who play at Atlanta Tuesday night, the games had similar virtues and drawbacks. In two nights, forward Jeff Ruland scored 51 points, had 24 rebounds and gave away nothing to Moses Malone and Bill Cartwright.
Less expected, though, was guard Frank Johnson's offensive production (47 points, 14 assists). He appears to have more confidence in his shot and ability to drive by his man and challenge such imposing folks as Malone and Truck Robinson. He also has taken over the floor play when rookie guards Jeff Malone or Mike Wilson are in the game.
The biggest change in the Bullets has been their depth. From the very moment guard Ricky Sobers got into foul trouble in the first period against Philadelphia, Coach Gene Shue has turned to the bench, especially Malone, forward Darren Daye and utility big man Tom McMillen.
New York Coach Hubie Brown, who has been so harshly candid about figures like Billy Cunningham and Bill Russell lately, is rarely diplomatic in his evaluation of opponents. So perhaps he can be believed when he says, "Washington helped themselves more than any other team in the offseason. They were already a good team and now they have improved themselves tremendously.
"I think Malone, Daye and McMillen are going to make a heavy contribution. And, of course, the big sleeper is (Guy) Williams from Washington State. If he comes back to anywhere near his potential, he'll be an even bigger steal than Darren Daye."
Williams, a second-round draft pick, will be out for months as he recuperates from a knee injury. Brown's enthusiasm for Washington's rookies has been echoed by a number of other coaches. So far, Daye has played most effectively.
After Julius Erving stunned Daye for several mystifying minutes in Philadelphia, the former UCLA forward has played well, scoring eight points against the 76ers and 14 against the Knicks. On occasion center Rick Mahorn would have to take him aside on the court and tell him where to play on defense. But so far Daye has played with poise.
"He's been great for us," said Shue.
"They really went with him down the stretch, so they obviously have confidence in him," said the Knicks' Robinson.
What has been puzzling is Jeff Malone's inability to score. One of the top scorers in the nation last season at Mississippi State, he has made just eight of 32 shots in two games with the Bullets.
"I have no excuse really for the way I've been shooting," he said. "Basically, that's what I do best. I don't understand it."
McMillen has played pretty much as expected, providing Ruland and Mahorn with some rest and the team with some steady rebounding and shooting. After Saturday night's game, Robinson gave this tribute: "To be honest, Tom McMillen is the kind of guy you always want to hit. He's so lanky and pesty, you just want to belt him."
New York center Marvin Webster was also impressed with the Bullets' revised team.
"I think the Bullets are a lot better as a whole," he said. "But for the time being they're playing a lot of rookies and that means inexperience. But they are still good, and I imagine as the season goes on, they'll be a lot better."