There is a feeling growing among NBA watchers that, placed in the league's Western Conference, the Bullets would be a good bet to make the championship series. The theory is based on the idea that Washington's bruising, grueling style would overpower the opposition.
Indeed, supporting evidence was displayed in the team's 101-98 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers last night before the season's first sellout crowd of 19,105 at Capital Centre.
Cliff Robinson led the Bullets with 25 points. Center Jeff Ruland just missed getting his second triple-double of the season; he had nine assists to go with 20 points and 12 rebounds.
The Bullets (14-7) weathered a blistering half-court trap in the final minutes to win for the 12th time in their last 14 games, the last three victories coming without guard Gus Williams, still slowed by a strained adductor tendon in his right leg. Washington pulled out this one mainly with a powerful defensive effort.
During a 6:08 span of the final period, Washington held Los Angeles scoreless while scoring 16 points. Rick Mahorn, playing 19 minutes on a gimpy left ankle, was instrumental in holding the Lakers' leading scorer, center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to 17 points, two in the fourth quarter.
One convert to the Bullets-in-the-West theory was Lakers Coach Pat Riley. "We tried, we played hard. That's just a championship-caliber team," he said. "We lost our poise and composure against their defensive pressure. I'm not disappointed with the game, just the outcome."
Despite their woes, the visitors almost stole the victory because of their defensive effort. Trailing, 91-82, with 4:46 left in the game, the Lakers went on a 11-4 spree to cut the margin to 95-93 with 1:04 to play.
It was 21 seconds later that the Bullets, foundering badly, got a break. Jeff Malone, attempting to pass the ball inside the lane, lost control, instead throwing it off the legs of the Lakers' Michael Cooper.
Washington's Greg Ballard then fumbled the ball and the Lakers' James Worthy poked at it. Robinson took a shot at possession but also fumbled. The wayward basketball traveled between the legs of Abdul-Jabbar out toward the left base line, where Frank Johnson picked it up and sent a 10-foot jump shot through the hoop, just four seconds before the 24-second clock expired.
"That was basically the game. It was a play we work on all the time and it was perfectly designed and executed," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "No, really, it looked like that Oakland Raiders-San Diego Chargers football game a few years ago where the ball was fumbled forward about 20 yards into the end zone."
Johnson, who finished the game with 17 points, credited himself with "just being in the right place at the right time," but Riley saw more in the play than that.
"It was a strange, strange play," he said. "Three or four of our guys probably should have had it. If you get down on the wood, you force at least a jump ball. We were reaching instead of hitting the floor."
As befitting the intensely played game, there was still another almost heart-stopping moment to endure. With 17 seconds left, two free throws by Johnson put Washington ahead, 99-95, but Cooper made a three-point shot with 12 seconds to play.
Ballard and Jeff Malone contested the shot and Cooper fell to the floor in a heap, but no whistle sounded. Some Lakers questioned the lack of a foul but according to the shooter, "It was close. I came down on the side of his (Ballard's) foot. It really doesn't matter. We were up by 14 points, playing our tempo and we lost control."
Actually, the Lakers never led by more than 10 points, the last time at 46-36 midway through the second quarter, but there was a point when it seemed like the visitors, now 14-9, would be able to select their margin of victory.
That was early in the third period. Tied at 55 at halftime, the Lakers, long among the best in the NBA on the fast break, went on a 13-6 run to move in front, 68-61. With the crowd oohing and aahing at the sight of Magic Johnson (23 points, 12 assists) dishing off for layups by Cooper and Abdul-Jabbar and scoring one himself, the stage was set for a Hollywood-style, slam-bam finish of the Bullets.
But the finale never came, mainly because the adjustments Washington made at halftime began paying off. "Early in the game, we were double-teaming Kareem but we were also making a lot of mistakes on defense," said Shue. "We thought we could do a better job on things, like their base line cuts, for example.
"And in the second half, our rotation was great. We were getting deflections and picking up loose balls. It was great to watch."
Then there was the pleasing sight of Robinson scoring basket after basket in the clutch. After getting 13 points in the second quarter to keep the Bullets close, he was also effective at game's end. Between the 6:51 and 2:32 marks of the final period, Robinson scored 10 of the Bullets' 12 points, many in clutch situations.
Robinson said part of the reason for his strong performance was that it was the first time in his six-year career that he's played before a sellout crowd as a member of the home team. "It's definitely a new sensation for me," he said. "Playing the Lakers helped, but it's great when the people in the stands are rooting for you."
According to Ruland, there's just cause for the fan's adulation. "Los Angeles is one of the top teams in the NBA -- definitely the best in the West -- but now, with the talent we have, we can compete with anyone."