That giddy, euphoric feeling that accompanied the Washington Bullets' short-handed success in recent weeks came to an end with a sickening thud last night at Capital Centre.
When the Bullets won four consecutive games between Jan. 21 and Jan. 26 without Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson, their first victim was the Cleveland Cavaliers, 128-115. Last night, before the season's poorest crowd, 4,103, the Bullets turned in their poorest performance, falling by 121-112.
The final nine-point margin was extremely deceptive. The last time the Bullets led in the game was 4-2 with 11:08 remaining in the opening period. Led by John Bagley, the visitors smashed that to bits. The third-year guard from Boston College is generously listed at 6 feet tall, but he must have seemed larger than life against the Bullets.
Playing 42 minutes, Bagley scored a career-high 35 points on 16-of-19 shooting from the field, passed off for 10 assists, had three steals and even got six rebounds in a performance that he described as "just playing ball."
"The ball comes around to you a little more when you're hitting your shots," he said. "It's my job to dish the ball off, but when I have open shots and I'm hitting them it's important for me to keep taking them because that opens up the pass for the next time down court. The big thing tonight was that we wanted to jump on them early."
Early, late, or in between, it mattered little to Washington. "We were looking for any kind of a combination that worked; the scorers weren't scoring, the rebounders weren't rebounding and the defenders weren't defending," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "This game was never a game because we were never in it. We were tired, we were beat, absolutely dead. We just weren't there."
With leads of up to 22 points, the Cavaliers had total control, shooting 54 percent from the field and gaining a 49-36 rebounding edge, including 19 offensive rebounds good for 22 points. The 27-23 Bullets, losers of three in a row, didn't help their cause by turning the ball over 14 times, giving Cleveland another 16 points.
"It was by far the best game of the year for us," said Cleveland Coach George Karl. "It was fun, we played good basketball tonight. Bagley was tremendous, he was an all-star tonight."
The opening quarter should have been the first clue to what the Bullets were in for. Justifiably concerned with stopping the offensive forays of World B. Free, who entered the game with a 28.7 average on 57 percent shooting over the last nine contests, the Bullets were rocked by Bagley, who was seven of eight in the opening 12 minutes.
For the half, he was nine of 10. Then, after missing his initial two shots of the third quarter, Bagley made seven consecutive field goals during the remainder of the game.
Lost amidst Bagley's offensive pyrotechnics was Washington's Jeff Malone, who scored a career-high 34 points. In 32 minutes of play off the bench, Frank Johnson acquitted himself well with 20 points and 10 assists. Greg Ballard had 23 points and 12 rebounds.
But that was as misleading as the final score, or the fact that twice in the fourth quarter the Bullets cut the margin to eight points, the last time at 113-105 with 2:50 left in the game. There was really no way for that sort of miracle to be pulled off.
Or perhaps no way it should have been. "The bubble kind of burst tonight," said Shue. "Teams are getting wiser on how to play us with the people we're lacking but it's totally to be expected. We've been overachieving but it all catches up to you eventually and I think it has."
But Shue's frustration hadn't permeated the locker room. "I won't get frustrated yet, not as long as we're playing decent basketball overall and I think -- except for tonight -- we're doing that," said Ballard. "It's obvious that it's the boards where we're getting beat. You can't score without the ball, and if the other team is getting second and third shots, there's more pressure on you to score every time we get the ball.
"I'm afraid that's what's going to continue to happen until we get our guys back."