Any aspirations the Washington Bullets have of joining the NBA elite will be addressed in the two weeks beginning today, when they play the Philadelphia 76ers at Capital Centre.
A crowd of about 16,000, the second-largest of the season, is expected for the third of six meetings between the teams.
Washington, now in third place, 10 games behind Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division, took the season's first meeting, a 120-105 road victory on Nov. 20. The 76ers returned the disfavor, winning, 93-89, at Capital Centre a week later.
At that time the Bullets were threatening to change the customary Philadelphia-Boston title chase into a three-way affair. Today that doesn't seem as likely, if only because those two teams have a combined 61-12 record; the Bullets, after Friday night's two-point loss at Boston, are 20-16.
In the 15 days beginning today, Washington will play 10 games, five on the road. After facing the 76ers, the team will travel to Cleveland, Utah, Denver and Kansas City before returning home to take on the Cavaliers Jan. 21. That game was originally scheduled for Nov. 29 but was postponed for a Prince concert.
"There's no doubt that this is probably our toughest stretch of the season," said Coach Gene Shue.
"It's important that we go into it playing well. Confidence is an amazing thing. That's what happened early in the season when we were going strong. You beat a couple of good teams and you get rolling and it almost doesn't matter who or where you're playing."
Although the Bullets fell just short in Friday's 103-101 loss to the Celtics, the team demonstrated poise that could come in handy at playoff time. Starting slowly, Washington fell behind by 19 points in the second quarter but fought back, even briefly taking the lead in the fourth period, and just missed a last-second shot that would have sent the game into overtime.
Guard Gus Williams looked upon the game as perhaps "a kind of learning experience" for his team. Shue didn't disagree and intimated that he might have learned a lesson of sorts himself.
"There were so many big plays in the game but I wish I had that last play over," the coach said, referring to the last-second scramble. "A situation like that, you're either going to do it or you don't, but perhaps we should have gone for a three-point shot. I like to do that, especially when we're on the road."
In Shue's view, few NBA teams have the luxury of not worrying about such things. "We're not like the Celtics and Philly; they're proven teams. We're a newer squad, like most of the other teams in the league. We can go in stretches where we're capable of winning a few straight. Boston, their streaks are winning all of the time."
According to the Bullets' front office, about 3,000 tickets for today's game were available as of 4:30 p.m. Friday . . . Because CBS will televise the Los Angeles-Detroit game at noon, the Bullets' game will start at 2:30 p.m. A league rule states that no game can be aired in conflict with a CBS telecast. Home Team Sports will show the Washington-Philadelphia game.