It is widely acknowledged by basketball savants that the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are the best things going thus far in the 1984-85 season. When discussing which team will eventually take the title, the edge is often given to the 76ers, based on what is considered to be their superior depth.
Yet, Pat Williams, the 76ers' general manager, admits that his squad -- given the same set of dire circumstances -- would be hard pressed to match this week's accomplishments of the Washington Bullets. "We would be in bad, bad shape," he said. "I don't know how we'd get through something like that. What the Bullets have been able to do is a testimony to endurance. They've obviously been able to reach back for something extra.
"I've looked at the box scores the past week and have been absolutely amazed at how they've managed."
With Jeff Ruland, Cliff Robinson and Rick Mahorn all doubtful for tonight's game against the Phoenix Suns at Capital Centre (HTS at 7:30), the Bullets would appear in for a long night. But that was what most people thought going into Thursday night's 93-92 victory over the Dallas Mavericks.
Although lacking a "legitimate" center throughout the team's five-year history, Dallas came into the contest with one player (forward Jay Vincent) who had been among the league's top 10 rebounders most of the season. The Bullets entered the game next to last in the NBA in rebounds.
Yet Washington outrebounded the visitors, 54-42, the first time the team had held that statistical edge in six games. That's the same number of games Ruland, the team's leading rebounder, has missed with a strained right shoulder. Tom McMillen had a season-high 15 rebounds, while Greg Ballard had 20, a career-high. Perhaps none was bigger than the one that came with just over 1:20 to play when, after a missed Dallas shot, Ballard covered three-quarters of the court with a baseball pass to Darren Daye, whose subsequent stuff shot gave the Bullets a 93-89 lead.
Things might not have gotten that far had a third-quarter spill by Gus Williams proven to be serious. Driving for a layup with 7:44 to play in the period, Williams missed the shot and crashed into the basket support. Dazed, Williams remained still for nearly 90 seconds before rising gingerly on his left ankle. After going to the locker room to get retaped, he returned, scoring nine of his game-high 31 points.
Over the last seven games, Williams has averaged 25 points and 10.5 assists in carrying the team through its streak of injuries. Said Shue after the Dallas game, "I'm used to seeing Gus do remarkable things, but I might have felt differently about winning if he had gone down."
Given the team's play for almost the past two weeks, who knows what might have happened if that occurred? "Most players only learn one position but on our team the guys can play each of the spots," said Shue in explaining how his team has been able to adapt to the various injuries.
"We're playing every game with a high level of intensity. It's similar to how it was when we were winning seven straight games (earlier in the season)," said Ballard. "You feel like you want to do everything right, like you have to do everything right and do exactly what the coach says."
But while the Bullets' players make jokes about McMillen, 32, signing a one-year, $2 million pact, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers did earlier this season, along with the occasional "What injured players?" comment, Pat Williams says the Bullets have to be well aware of how fragile their luck has been.
"I don't think they'll have any trouble incorporating their injured players back into the lineup and getting them into the swing of things," he said. "Despite what they've done, you have to remember that they've been playing at home, which helps. I'm sure they don't really have any delusions about wanting to play like this for the next month."
Shue agreed. "We really, really need to get our players back," he said. "This magic has to end sometime."
But he hesitated a moment, perhaps unsure if he truly believed the words he had just spoken.