Gus Williams stopped thinking about his injury last night, and the return to form by Washington's star guard set the tone for the Bullets in a 125-111 victory over the New York Knicks.
On a night when the Knicks' Bernard King tied the Capital Centre opponent's record by scoring 43 points, the Bullets started strongly, sagged in the third quarter, then put away the New Yorkers with an early fourth-quarter surge led by Williams (27 points, eight rebounds, three steals).
But the small crowd of 5,035 was watching more than a one-man show for a team that had lost five of its last six games while playing lackadaisically.
Coach Gene Shue went for offense in his starting lineup, with Cliff Robinson at power forward and Jeff Malone at second guard, and the Bullets responded by equaling team scoring highs for a half (68) and a game this season while shooting a season-high 60.2 percent from the field.
In addition to Williams, the Bullets had three other starters with more than 20 points -- Robinson with 25, 23 in the first half; Jeff Ruland, returning from an eye injury that forced him to miss two games, with 22, and Malone with 22.
The other four Bullets who played more than two minutes also contributed heavily.
King scored the Knicks' first five points, but Greg Ballard (four rebounds, two steals in the first quarter) stymied him until the Bullets had a 58-37 lead late in the second quarter.
Rick Mahorn came in to shut down King after he had brought the Knicks to an 88-85 deficit late in the third quarter. Both Darren Daye (12 points, four assists) and Dudley Bradley (five rebounds, four points, top-notch defense) had solid games.
But it was Williams who made it all work, especially when his three-point goal gave the Bullets some breathing room at the end of the third quarter and when he scored 10 of Washington's 12 points, including a rare four-point play, that opened the lead to 104-91 with nine minutes to play.
"He's back," said Robinson.
Williams returned six games ago after missing three games (all won by the Bullets) with a strained tendon in his right leg. The foundation of Williams' game is aggressiveness, and he was afraid to go full speed, fearing reinjury.
Ruland characterized the Bullets' play the last six games as "lackluster, not playing with intensity." Williams sets the tone for this team, and with him not playing aggressively, it didn't either.
But last night, after Shue aired the team's problems publicly for the first time, the Bullets came out playing hard, and were quickly rewarded.
They opened a 22-9 lead, with Robinson scoring 10 points and Williams getting eight points, three assists, one steal, one blocked shot and a rebound.
A play typical of the turnaround came late in the quarter, with the Bullets leading, 30-18. Knicks guard Darrell Walker had a breakaway, but Williams hustled in from behind and knocked the ball out of bounds. On the inbounds play, Ruland stole a pass by Louis Orr.
During their recent hard times -- even in a 104-95 victory over New Jersey here Tuesday night -- the Bullets were outhustled, got few loose balls and were outrebounded by more than 11 per game.
The basket that made it 56-37 also was a good example of what the Bullets had been lacking. Robinson stole a pass by Walker and sprinted the length of the court for a layup. It was one of 15 layups for Washington in the first half, in which the Bullets led by 21 points en route to a 68-51 intermission lead.
The lead reached 22 points early in the third quarter before the Knicks started playing well and the Bullets went 16 possessions taking only two shots inside 18 feet. Meanwhile, King got hot against Ballard, and Shue brought in Mahorn to guard him.
King scored just four points as the Bullets, with Williams scoring 12, went on an 18-8 run for a 106-93 lead. The key play came with the Bullets leading by 93-89 and the Knicks attempting to cut the margin to two.
Williams intercepted a pass from King and sped away with Rory Sparrow giving chase. Williams made the basket and was fouled by Sparrow, who claimed he didn't touch him and got a technical from Jake O'Donnell. Williams made both foul shots for a 97-89 lead.
Shue, knowing a good thing when he sees it, says he has found his starting linep, which gets another chance to prove him right tonight at Atlanta.