The Washington Bullets played the role of illusionists for much of last night's game against the New Jersey Nets at Capital Centre. Although the score sheet read that the game was a close one, in reality the Bullets were nowhere to be found.
Playing against a New Jersey team riddled by injury, Washington, in the midst of a four-game losing streak, seemed lulled to sleep, perhaps even overconfident at a time when cockiness should have been the furthest thing from their minds.
By game's end, however, the Bullets had awoken from their collective stupor, fittingly enough with a swarming team rotation on defense that allowed just 13 points in the fourth quarter, enabling Washington to overhaul the Nets, 104-95. It was Coach Gene Shue's 700th career victory, a full 10 days after No. 699. Shue also has 700 career losses.
The victory just happened to fall on Shue's 53rd birthday, which might have been what he meant when he allowed after the game that he felt "much older now than I was before."
Or perhaps he was referring to the esthetically unpleasing contest. Even with their strong defensive front, the Bullets nearly gave the game away because of six turnovers in the final period, just one more than the visitors.
Not that it mattered to Shue. "Honestly, winning the 700th didn't mean a helluva lot," he said. "The significant thing was that we were on a losing streak and we didn't want to lose here and have to go there tomorrow night."
There was also the specter of playing without center Jeff Ruland, who sat out the game because of a scratched cornea in his right eye. In his stead, Cliff Robinson entered the starting lineup and registered season highs with 30 points and 18 rebounds.
Eight of those points came in the fourth quarter and capped a splendid duel between Robinson and the Nets' Buck Williams, who had 29 points and 14 rebounds. "I could see what he was doing out on the court but I didn't want to get into a one-on-one thing with him," said Robinson. "It was just that they were going to him a lot and Gene was running a lot of plays for me."
Also taking away from the individual aspect of the player's games was the fact that at game's end, Williams was being guarded by Tom McMillen. After not playing in the previous two contests, McMillen played 31 minutes and was a major contributor in the Bullets' defensive handiwork, holding Williams -- sometimes literally -- to only five points in the final period.
"When you're coming off the bench, you have a tendency to pick up quick fouls, but the longer you're in, the more you can get away with defensively because the refs get used to your banging," said McMillen. "After I was able to get by that first hurdle, I was able to get him out further, not let him get inside as easily."
Like the rest of his teammates, things didn't come as easily at the game's start. Struggling and without Ruland to lean on, the Bullets shot 38 percent in the first period, trailing 30-25. Even after improving noticeably in the second quarter with a 72-percent mark, they still were down at the half, 56-53.
It wasn't until late in the third period that the spark that characterized the team prior to its losing streak returned. Down, 80-71, with 3:18 to play, Washington went on a 12-2 run for a 83-82 lead going into the fourth quarter. Gus Williams was the catalyst, scoring 11 of his 28 points in the period.
Then in the final period came Washington's defensive muscle. "We were fighting uphill the entire night and finally got our nose in front at the end of the third period," said Shue. "Then we became more aggressive and started doing things like overplaying passes. It was just sensational, sensational defense in the fourth quarter."
New Jersey Coach Stan Albeck said, "When they took the lead for good, they just took the game away from us."
And that, as borne out by the final stat sheet, was no illusion.