Bullets Coach Gene Shue wanted to smile, tried his best to smile. Finally, a grin crossed his face.
"Last night was complete euphoria. Tonight, I'm very happy," he said.
At the end of the 82-game regular season, there will be very little distinction between the Washington Bullets' 97-92 victory over the Kansas City Kings last night at Capital Centre and the team's 120-105 rout of the 76ers in Philadelphia the night before.
A victory is a victory and the less than stellar decision was the seventh consecutive victory for the Bullets (9-5). For the first time in seven games, guard Gus Williams didn't lead the team in scoring, Cliff Robinson taking high point honors with 20 to go along with his 11 rebounds. Forward Eddie Johnson led Kansas City with 34 points.
"It wasn't a great performance," said Shue. "But I understand how these things work."
The things Shue were referring to is the tendency to let down following an emotional victory such as the one against Philadelphia, despite whatever might have been at stake against the Kings.
The Bullets entered the game on the wings of their six-game winning streak, yet there was a distinct pressure in playing a team like the Kings, 2-8 entering the game. "Last night was a good win but we can't afford to be cocky," center Jeff Ruland said before the game.
"If we lose to them, it would be like throwing the Philly game away," added Bernie Bickerstaff, the assistant coach.
Despite, or because of their cautiousness, the Bullets began slowly last night, especially at the defensive end. Kansas City made its first five shots from the field, causing Shue to call a timeout in exasperation.
Shortly thereafter he leaped from the bench to chastise his players for lack of concentration, yelling, "Let's go. Let's get serious." At the same time, Bickerstaff was telling them to relax.
At the end of the quarter, the Bullets led, 24-19, but things remained uneasy throughout the second quarter. The team showed a little spark when Robinson scored on a dunk following a steal by Williams and a feed from Frank Johnson to take a 28-23 lead, but the mood quickly passed.
Shue, who has been content throughout the streak to let the team find its own way on offense, tried to take more control but was frustrated in the attempt. At one point, he tried to call a play but signaled too late to get Williams' attention, returning to the bench muttering, "Forget it."
As poorly as the Bullets were playing however, the Kings were worse. Winners of only one game on the road this season, the team was exhibiting none of the passion or even any of the little things -- a pat from one player to another, for example -- that makes a team a team.
Yet, led by guard Reggie Theus, who had eight assists at the half, the Kings entered their locker room at halftime down by just 50-46.
In the third period, Washington began to exhibit some of the qualities so prevalent during the winning streak: Williams stealing a pass with Robinson scoring on a feed from Dudley Bradley, as Washington moved out to a 58-48 lead.
The team's biggest lead came just before the quarter's end, Robinson's jumper putting the Bullets ahead, 76-63. In the fourth quarter though, Kansas City's grinding style began to pay dividends. Taking advantage of the Bullets' cold shooting and turnovers (28 for the game), Kansas City cut the margin steadily, finally trailing, 89-86, with 3:12 to play following a three-point play by Eddie Johnson.
By then, the Bullets had scored four baskets in the period. "At that point, we had been doing it on defense but we didn't have any scoring," said Shue. "They did a good job taking away our inside game and we just didn't have any outside shooting."
Fortunately, the Bullets overcame a season-long nemesis, poor free-throw shooting, going seven for 11 to keep the Kings at bay. When Ruland broke a 3:08 span without a basket, scoring off a rebound, the team moved out in front, 93-88, to take control.