The Washington Bullets' fifth defeat in six games tells Coach Gene Shue something: "We just aren't right at the present time." And immediately after Wednesday's 115-106 loss to the New Jersey Nets, Shue took the first step toward setting the team right.
Shue, beginning to get miffed by his team's play, met privately with Gus Williams, then with Rick Mahorn in a deserted hallway outside the team's dressing room.
Williams has, for the most part, struggled since returning to the lineup against the Utah Jazz (in an 85-82 loss, Dec. 11) after recovering from a strained adductor tendon in his right leg. Although Williams has shown signs of regaining his shooting touch -- scoring 28 points in a victory over the Nets Tuesday and then 21 Wednesday -- Shue has been less than enchanted with the guard's defense.
For most coaches, dealing with a star's on-court indiscretions is tricky. In Williams' case, Shue has generally shown displeasure by just pulling him from the game.
Shue said Wednesday's talk wasn't major. "I don't mind doing things like disciplining star players," he said. "If it were something major we would have sat down and had a long talk. Tonight I just wanted to chat with him about applying more pressure and becoming aggressive on both offense and defense."
Williams chose not to comment on his conversation with Shue, but Mahorn was more than willing to discuss the nature of his talk with the coach. "I'm just feeling a bit frustrated right now," said Mahorn. "I feel like I'm sort of in the shadows and I'd like to be more productive if I can get it (the ball).
"Teams are concentrating on (Jeff) Ruland and Cliff (Robinson) and Gus and even Jeff Malone and that's understandable because they're all great shooters, but I know I can make that little short jumper and the way this team executes I should be able to get it."
Mahorn scored just six points against New Jersey on Wednesday, making half of the four shots he took from the field. In the previous game, plagued by foul trouble, Mahorn played just 16 minutes and did not score.
This season, Mahorn has played 628 minutes and taken 123 shots from the field, an average of nearly one every six minutes. That average doesn't compare favorably with, say, Williams' 485 attempts in 877 minutes.
Of course, scoring isn't expected as much from Mahorn as from Williams. The power forward has averaged nearly eight rebounds a game and has consistently been the Bullets' best defender but, he says, "I know I can do more than play D and board.
"I went out to the (Pete) Newell camp (for offensive footwork for big men) and I felt comfortable coming into our training camp. I think that Gene's a great coach . . . I'd run through a wall for anybody. I just feel I can assert myself more."
To that end, Mahorn will begin arriving early at Washington practices and working with Shue on his offensive game. As for the rest of the team, how they'll go about the business of getting back in business remains to be seen.
Were it not for an almost charming coincidence in which Shue evened his career coaching record at 700-700 on the day he celebrated his 53rd birthday, Washington would be looking to snap a six-game losing streak tonight against the New York Knicks. Even so, Shue isn't happy with his team having gone from 14-7 to 15-12. "Now we're in a position of having to worry about the Knick game," he said.
There is a bit of good news, though, because Ruland, who missed the Nets game because of a scratched cornea in his right eye, has recovered sufficiently to play against the Knicks, according to a team spokesman.
Wednesday's loss in New Jersey was typical of the almost blase' play that has plagued Washington during its regression. Playing once again without Ruland, the clear majority of loose balls were recovered by the Nets, as was true against the same team the night before.
Even when they weren't contested, the Bullets stumbled. On one play early in the second quarter, Mahorn and Malone managed to push a rebound from underneath the New Jersey basket to out of bounds on the left sideline. Shortly thereafter, the Nets' Micheal Ray Richardson got credit for a basket when his long jump shot was inadvertently tipped in by Mahorn.