Faithful followers of the Washington Bullets will not be surprised if their team upsets the Boston Celtics on the defending NBA champions' home court Friday night. Then again, it also will not be shocking if the Celtics win going away.
To say the least, the Bullets have played in a wildly fluctuating manner this season. It's hard to get a fix on the team, which at different times has lost four straight games, won seven straight and 12 of 14, then lost four straight a second time. Lately, the team has won four of six en route to a record of 20-15.
Tuesday night's 99-95 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks was, perhaps, the oddest game the team has played yet, providing an almost perfect look at the season in miniature. Entering the game with two consecutive losses, five straight defeats at the Mecca in Milwaukee and handicapped by the absence of injured forward Cliff Robinson, the odds suggested a third straight loss for Washington.
But for the first three quarters of the game, the Bullets played perhaps their finest basketball of the season against a team that had won eight of its last 10 games. Washington did it without a single point from center Jeff Ruland and only seven from leading scorer Gus Williams.
In the fourth quarter, Ruland finally got some points, but the team nearly came apart, blowing a 17-point lead and narrowly withstanding a full-court defensive blitz by Milwaukee.
"They were coming at us pretty hard, but we were still very confident that we'd win the game," said forward Darren Daye. "There was no way that they should have come back on us like that."
Perhaps such contrasting play has its origins at the top. After long extolling the merits of a three-man guard rotation, Coach Gene Shue not only played third guard Dudley Bradley for 17 minutes but released fourth man Frank Johnson from the bench for 21 minutes of work.
Given the fact that his name has come up recently in trade talk, some might have regarded Johnson's appearance as an attempt to showcase him. But according to Shue, who has stated that he's not "set in concrete" as to who on his team will play, the move was made to combat one of Milwaukee's strengths.
"In the past, they've given us trouble by going to a three-guard lineup," said Shue. "For a long stretch on Tuesday, they had a team with (forward) Terry Cummings and four small players and we did the same thing with Ruland and four of our smaller guys. That was one of the key points of the game."
Indeed, when the Bullets expanded their 47-44 halftime lead to 89-72 with 5:34 to play in the game, it was accomplished for the most part with a lineup of Ruland, Daye, Bradley, Johnson and Malone -- the only substitutes being Rick Mahorn or Greg Ballard.
The strategy cut the playing time of Tom McMillen to 11 minutes, but the veteran forward still scored 10 points in that time. In the three games Robinson has been out of the lineup, McMillen has averaged 11 points and played a strong overall game, yet he knows that upon Robinson's return it will be "back into the freezer for me.
"That's just Gene's philosophy, but the funny thing is, I agree with it," McMillen said. "To be effective, you need somewhere between 20 to 30 minutes a game. There are 96 minutes a game at power forward and center. Ruland is going to get, say, 40 of those, which means there isn't a lot to divide up between myself, Mahorn and Robinson."
Robinson is expected to practice with the Bullets at Bowie State today, and his status for the Celtics game will be determined at that time. He has missed three games because of a strained tendon in his right index finger.