The way Jeff Malone had it figured about 10 days ago, Saturday's game against the Hawks was going to be a triumphant homecoming.
Eligible to play after missing the first five games of the season with a twisted ankle, Malone saw himself returning to his hometown -- and the Washington Bullets' lineup -- to the tune of 20 or so points.
But 20 points from Malone would only have tied the score. Playing their fourth game in five nights, the Bullets could do little to stop the Hawks from running them out of the Omni, 127-107.
Seven players scored at least 12 points for Atlanta, which surpassed its highest point total in any game last season. The high point man for the Hawks was Glenn Rivers with 23 and Dominique Wilkins had 22. Greg Ballard had a game-high 27 for Washington.
The Bullets played without forward Cliff Robinson, who didn't travel to Atlanta following a death in the family. Malone, whose ankle was determined at only 80 percent healed by team doctors, wasn't activated.
With each passing day, though, it becomes apparent how much the second-year guard from Mississippi State is missed. Although he shot only 44 percent from the field a year ago, Malone, according to the assistant coach, Bernie Bickerstaff, "has a reputation as an outside shooter and that's good.
"Other teams perceive him as a threat and they have to respect his abilities."
Malone also would give the Bullets another player capable of functioning in their hoped-for fast-break offense, one that is presently spinning its wheels. Robinson, although touted as a capable runner, was just beginning to loosen up from the back spasms that plagued him in the preseason. Now there is no word as to when he'll return to the team.
Where does that leave the Bullets? "What we really have now is the same team as last year and Gus (Williams)," said Coach Gene Shue. "We'd like to push the ball, take advantage of his abilities, but the pace of the game is too fast for the players we have."
Williams, who still isn't 100 percent healthy himself, concurs with Shue's evaluation. "If we're 2-4 then maybe the tempo isn't right," he said. "I know there were high expectations for this team, but it takes time. Other teams have played together, but the Bullets made drastic changes and we haven't had the chance to get everyone together yet."
Because of their lack of cohesiveness, the Bullets find themselves a team in transition in other ways as well. Because of the quickened pace of their games, with some players running and some not, many times they can be found in the mid-court area, a no-man's land where they can't get involved in the offense and can't recover in time to get back on defense.
"Our team speed just isn't there and we're having too many defensive breakdowns," says Shue. "When that happens our defense becomes as porous as hell."
And that applies even in a half-court situation. Without a shot-blocking player in the middle, teams haven't hesitated in taking the ball to the basket on the Bullets. Of the Hawks' 51 field goals Saturday, 30 were layups or dunks. Whenever the Bullets did go after a shot and missed, Atlanta usually got the rebound. For the game, the Hawks retrieved 20 of their own missed shots.
Robinson, who had a career-high 103 blocks in the 1981-82 season, is expected to carry the load for the Bullets in that area as well as participate in the fast break offensively.
The same thing is being asked of Jeff Ruland, who had 72 blocks last season, and Rick Mahorn, who had a team-high 123. While it's very possible to play all three men together, that doesn't make it as easy to run on offense.
Until Malone (who should be activated by Wednesday's game at New Jersey) and Robinson return, the Bullets probably will abandon the fast-break concept temporarily. "You'll see much more control from us," promised Shue.
"The fast break is exciting but there's nothing exciting about losing," said Ballard. "Having Monday and Tuesday available to practice will help us to get in touch with each other because we need to bounce back."