Faced with the absence of Gus Williams and Rick Mahorn in last night's game against the Indiana Pacers, the Washington Bullets tried to win through measured, efficient basketball. That nearly backfired, however, and it took a fourth-period rally to pull out a 111-106 victory at Capital Centre.
Cliff Robinson, starting in place of Mahorn, led Washington (13-7) with a season-high 28 points and 10 rebounds while center Jeff Ruland added 27 and nine. In addition, Williams' replacement, Jeff Malone, scored a season-high 18 points and reserve Frank Johnson had 16, including 10 in the final quarter.
Perhaps it was because of the opposition that the Bullets coasted for much of the game. The loss was the 15th in 20 games for the Pacers, who were led by Herb Williams' 22 points and Clark Kellogg's 21.
"In warmups, Mahorn was saying that he didn't think we were taking this game seriously," said Greg Ballard. "I don't know if it was them or the success that we've had recently but we weren't focused in. Our attitude should have been different."
Despite his team's lackadaisical play, Bullets' Coach Gene Shue said he was "tickled pink" with the win. "I thought we had a good chance to get some distance from them in the third period but we weren't sharp and played out of control," he said. "And it's inevitable that when a team has a chance to do well and doesn't, the other team will make a run at them."
Such was the case last night. Taking the lead at 9:07 of the first period, the Bullets maintained control of the game, never leading by fewer than six points and by as many as 15 in the second and third periods.
But the chance that Shue spoke of to put the game away in the third quarter never materialized, mainly because of Washington's poor shooting. In that period the Bullets shot just 36 percent from the field and 33 percent from the line.
It was then the Pacers began to creep back. Under first-year Coach George Irvine, they use a passing-game offense, involving rapid ball movement and an almost incessant fast break. When the Bullets began to stumble, the Indiana style began to pay off.
"With their offense they're at a peak at the start of the game and maintain it the whole way. If you relax they're right on top of you," said Robinson. "That's how they came back, when we sloughed off a bit."
Trailing, 89-82, with 10:31 to play, the Pacers outscored Washington, 10-2, to take a 92-91 lead with 7:26 remaining in the game. The Indiana comeback was led by center Steve Stipanovich. Scoreless at the half, the second-year player made five shots in the period.
His fourth, a 16-foot jumper, gave the Pacers their final lead of the night, 94-93, with 6:34 to play. Twenty seconds later, however, Robinson scored on a drive to the basket, followed in 16 seconds by Johnson's layup.
That the Pacers eventually fell out of contention was due more to their mistakes than outstanding play by the Bullets. Between the 4:42 mark and the final 28 seconds of the game, Indiana turned the ball over four times.
"We didn't execute our offense the way we should have at the end of the game," said Irvine. "Instead of running it out we kept trying to make one great play."
There were precious few of those on either side last night. For one of the few times this season the Bullets were outrebounded, 46-36, but got the victory anyway because, as Shue said, his team was "fortunate that we did enough good things at the end of the game to win it."
Just how fortunate the Bullets will continue to be remains to be seen, but after the Pacers' game Ruland was happy to be lucky.
"We really had to win that game," he said. "If we didn't, the next day would have been a rather hellish practice."
Rick Mahorn, who had missed three of the last four games because of a sprained left ankle, dressed for the contest against Indiana but played just the last minute of the first half. In 12 minutes of action, Tom McMillen scored four points, including his 5,000th NBA career point.