Basketball, as it's played in the NBA's Western Conference, is often in the nature of run and shoot and then run some more. In the East, however, contests like the Washington Bullets' recent rout of the Boston Celtics are an exception to the rule.
Very rarely does anything like that happen for or against the New York Knicks. With his grinding defense and platoon substitutions, their coach, Hubie Brown, won't allow it.
That's not to say that the Knicks can't be beaten, it just means that to do it a team must play very technical, very exacting basketball. Such was the case in the Bullets' third consecutive victory, a 103-92 win in Madison Square Garden tonight. The Bullets executed very well in close quarters, never allowing the Knicks' defensive pressure to become a factor.
"That was the most significant thing," said Washington Coach Gene Shue. "Handling their pressure through simple passes and rotating to the right spots. We had so much trouble against that last season."
The Knicks' pressure defense was a large part of the Bullets losing four of six to the New Yorkers last season. That and the offense of forward Bernard King. The league's third-leading scorer this season at 30.8 points per game, King was held to just 18 by Greg Ballard and Darren Daye.
"We wanted to try and control Bernard, we didn't want to have him getting the ball and taking over down the stretch, and we did a good job on him," said Shue.
But King, who took only 17 shots, didn't think it was the defense that cooled him off. "It was just one of those nights," he said. "If we had won the game, no one would be asking why I didn't score."
Of course, if King isn't scoring, chances are the Knicks aren't winning. But the team's 2-7 record is more a result of poor rebounding -- in all nine games they've been outrebounded.
That was the case tonight, the Bullets holding a 45-42 edge with Jeff Ruland leading the way with 17 to go with his 18 points. Gus Williams, despite eight-for-24 shooting from the field, led Washington with 21 points.
"It wasn't the best ball we could play, but that's the sign of a good team -- winning when they're not at their best," said Williams.
The bumping and grinding began early, with the Bullets, not as fast-break conscious as they were against the Celtics, relying on their half-court offense. On one play early in the game, Ruland, Williams and Dudley Bradley moved the ball around the perimeter before Rick Mahorn hit a short jump shot before the 24-second clock ran out.
The Bullets never led by more than seven points during the first half, which ended with them ahead, 56-54, limited in part by Washington's 45 percent free-throw shooting.
For the game, the Bullets made 52 percent of their shots from the line, enabling the Knicks to stay close in the second half, at one point even taking the lead, 70-69, on a shot by King.
Ruland got that basket right back on the next possession and the Bullets were never headed. The game's key play came with 9:44 left when Cliff Robinson (13 points, seven rebounds) scored on a reverse dunk after a nifty spin move on the baseline, putting Washington ahead, 83-77.
From that point, it was a case of keeping the Knicks at bay, which was helped by the clutch shooting of guard Jeff Malone. Although he missed some open shots, Malone was deadly when closely guarded, scoring eight of his 14 points in the fourth period. "It's very important for Jeff to be hitting those shots," said Shue.
Malone, a second-year player, agreed. "On the wide open ones I think I was trying too hard to shoot them correctly," he said. "The others I didn't worry about and they just went in."
Shue, whose team is 5-5, just laughed when asked how good the Bullets had become. "I know we have the makings of a good team," he said, "but it will be a long time before I sit back and start to tell the world about it." The Knicks' coach won't need to be told twice. "Give them all the credit, they made us play ragged basketball," said Brown. "But they're a good basketball team, it's not as if they're chopped liver . . . "