The way Boston Celtics Coach K.C. Jones sees it, there is little difference between his team and the Washington Bullets, "except for the injuries.
"They're not aspiring to reach our level, they're already there," he continued. "Keeping healthy is their only problem."
That problem stood out last night at Capital Centre. Before 19,105, their second sellout of the season, the Bullets couldn't quite match the depth of the Celtics, running out of gas late in the fourth quarter and losing, 97-91.
Entering a 12th straight game without Cliff Robinson, who still has leg miseries, Washington received a jolt when Jeff Ruland didn't suit up, missing his 10th game in the last 11. The all-star center aggravated his strained right shoulder in Friday night's 102-97 loss to the Pacers in Indiana.
The Bullets' fatigue was evidenced by their 25 percent mark from the field in the game's final 12 minutes, during which they scored only 15 points. During one span of that last quarter, the Bullets went nearly 5 1/2 minutes between baskets.
Despite that drought, the Bullets (27-22) still had a chance to sneak away with a victory and put the Atlantic Division leaders (39-9) in loss-column double figures at last. After giving up nine straight points to Boston, changing an 87-84 lead to an 93-87 deficit, Washington used two free throws by Tom McMillen and a jump shot by Gus Williams to draw within 93-91 with 1:54 to play.
The Bullets were not to score again. Dennis Johnson hit a pair of free throws at 1:39 to increase the Celtics' margin to four, but the real backbreaker came 42 seconds later.
With the 24-second clock winding down, Boston's Robert Parish appeared trapped along the right base line. Looking to get rid of the ball, he heard teammate Johnson holler "Shoot! Shoot!" and released a high-arcing shot that beat the buzzer by a second for the game's final points.
After that play, the Bullets were reduced to trying for three-point bombs that went the way of most of their two-point attempts in a 40 percent field goal shooting night.
"Basically we did a good job all night," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "McMillen did a good job on Parish and he wasn't a factor, and even Larry Bird wasn't a factor, which is unusual. We had our chances but the bottom line is that we didn't put the ball in the basket."
The Celtics were no great shakes either in the shooting department, making 42 percent in winning for the first time this season with under 100 points.
"We were very lucky tonight," said former Bullets coach Jones. "We got some good defense and some big rebounding and blocked shots, that was the saving thing. Larry couldn't hit the side of a wall and no one else was shooting the lights out, either."
Bird, who earlier in the week won games with last-second shots, led Boston with 21 points but was just eight for 20 from the field. He tied Parish with 12 rebounds, though, as the Celtics held sway, 57-37, in that category.
"Sometimes I'm a slow starter, but tonight I missed three wide-open jumpers and that really upset me," said Bird. "It seemed like every shot I hit was from close in; the jumpers were there but I just missed them. It was a frustrating night."
"Frustrating" was the word in the losers' locker room as well. "It hurts to always play them tough but not come out with a win," said Rick Mahorn. "To beat them we had to play a perfect game and when we couldn't score in that span and they did, that was the game."
Washington capitalized on Bird's cold shooting, some early foul trouble by Parish and perhaps the absence of Celtics guard Danny Ainge to control much of the game. Ainge strained a knee Friday night at Kansas City, where he scored a career-high 26 points. But Parish's replacement, Kevin McHale, as usual was nothing but trouble for the Bullets.
The Bullets, ahead at the quarter, 32-31, started the second quarter with seldom-used Guy Williams in the lineup, replacing Greg Ballard. Williams scored one basket on a spinning move through the lane to put the Bullets ahead, 39-37, but his second atrocious airball shot led to a stuff by Bird for Boston's first lead, 45-43, and he was soon back on the bench. The half ended all even at 55-55.
The Celtics jumped to a 67-59 lead after intermission, but the Bullets scored the last eight points of the third quarter to lead, 76-73. A three-point play by Jeff Malone, who matched Bird's 21 points, gave the Bullets their 87-84 advantage.
McHale scored 19 points and took 10 rebounds, providing 15 and six, respectively, in the first half as he kept Boston close. Frequently, the 6-foot-11 forward/center was matched against much smaller Darren Daye or Ballard and the Bullets couldn't really compete with the Celtics on the inside.
At least not without Ruland (who "wouldn't be surprised" if he might have to withdraw from the NBA All-Star Game next weekend in Indianapolis) and Robinson. "The players who are playing now have been marvelous but we want to win," said Shue. "It's getting frustrating. It seems like it (the injuries) has dragged on for weeks, months . . . who knows?"