One of the first things Isiah Thomas wanted to do following the Detroit Pistons' 121-113 victory over the Washington Bullets last night at Capital Centre was find a telephone and call the Los Angeles Lakers' Earvin Johnson.
With his best friend Magic sidelined by a sprained finger, Thomas decided to play like magic against Washington, registering 27 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists to send the Bullets to their second straight defeat.
"I'm gonna tell him that I picked him up tonight," Thomas said.
The Bullets could have used a pick-me-up from forward Cliff Robinson, who, not so coincidentally, missed his second straight game with strained tendons in his right index finger. Robinson's absence helped account for the visitors' 58-43 rebounding edge.
According to Washington Coach Gene Shue, all the Bullets played "very, very well," including Tom McMillen, who scored 17 points in 27 minutes of action in Robinson's stead. But said the coach, "There are certain players that can't be away from our team for any extended amount of time. Cliff is one of them because of the offense and rebounding he gives us."
Robinson probably couldn't guard Thomas but, then again, none of the other Bullets have had much luck in that regard this season. In the two previous games between the teams -- won by Washington -- Thomas had scored 35 and 32 points. This time, again, found Thomas darting under, over and about the home team. At one point in the third quarter, Shue even inserted Frank Johnson, who had not played in the previous four games, into the lineup to try stopping Thomas.
"Frank has had some success against Detroit and defensively against Thomas so I was definitely trying to go for it," Shue said.
The Bullets were definitely in need of some sort of help, particularly center Jeff Ruland. Although he led everyone with 13 rebounds and tied Thomas for scoring honors, it was a tough night for Ruland. Fourth in the NBA in field goal percentage, Ruland was two for 10 in the first half and ended 10 for 22.
"I might have missed more shots or had a poorer percentage but it was a tough night," said Ruland. "One time I drove to the basket and slipped and wound up thowing the ball off the side of the board."
Meanwhile, it seemed that anything Thomas was sending up was going in. Of all of his points, Thomas' biggest shot came late in the fourth quarter. After coming back from a 15-point deficit late in the first half, Washington managed to take a short-lived lead, 91-90, early in the final period. From that point the teams jockeyed back and forth. With 1:29 left, the Bullets trailed, 113-110, but had momentum.
That is, until, with the 24-second clock nearly expired, Thomas canned a three-point field goal from the top of the circle, increasing the Detroit lead to six. The Bullets didn't score again until Johnson hit a three-point shot with eight seconds remaining.
"That shot by Thomas was a really big score," said Shue. "He is just the best at taking the ball and going downcourt."
Kelly Tripucka, who furnished 19 Detroit points, agreed. "When he has the ball in his hands, 99 percent of the time he's gonna make something happen for himself or for his teammates."
Last night, that something was just enough to best the Bullets. "I thought we played very, very well tonight, Detroit was just a little bit better," said Shue. "It's hard to think that they could play much better than that."