You know that something must be really wrong when the eternal optimist, Washington Bullets Coach Gene Shue, starts to lose his cool.
That was the case in the aftermath of Monday night's 121-112 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Capital Centre. Playing without center Jeff Ruland for the 11th of 12 games and forward Cliff Robinson for the 13th straight game, the Bullets, tired from nine games in 14 days, offered only token resistance to the 14-32 visitors.
Shooting 61 percent in the first half and 54 percent for the game, the Cavaliers led by as many as 22 points in controlling the no-contest. Afterward, Shue bemoaned his team's lack of defense against guard John Bagley, who scored a career-high 35 points, but that grievance wasn't the true cause of the coach's frustration.
"We had high expectations for this team but all we've had is this incredible stretch of injuries," he said. "We've been overachieving, but that sort of thing has to catch up with you eventually and I think it has. It's very possible that we could have lost nine games in a row."
As it stands, the Bullets (27-23) are in imminent danger of losing their fourth consecutive game tonight when they visit the Philadelphia 76ers.
"We're going to have lots of problems with Philadelphia; if we both play great they'll probably win," Shue said. "If we play great and they play well, they'll still beat us."
That, of course, was the way it was for the Bullets last season en route to a deadly dull 35-47 season. This time around, however, things were supposed to be different. The addition of Gus Williams and Robinson was going to transform the team from plodders to pacers.
And indeed, the team showed that promise in winning 12 of 14 games, including routs of the defending champion Boston Celtics and the 76ers. But the true nature of this season's team probably was established when training-camp injuries to Williams and Robinson caused the team virtually to waste the exhibition season.
That was borne out when the Bullets, still trying to get to know each other, began the regular season by losing five of seven games. Things began to jell after that, with a seven-game winning streak and that 12-of-14 spell.
Now, that seems but a distant memory, not because of a dropoff in talent or desire but because of the injuries to Robinson and Ruland. When Robinson went down with a sprained right knee and strained right leg Jan. 13 and Ruland followed with a strained right shoulder the next day, it was thought that the losses would be brief.
"If I knew what I know now I might have done something (signed another player), but there's really no one available," General Manager Bob Ferry said. "There was never a time that the doctors said it would be more than a day-to-day thing with either of them."
But as Shue so aptly put it after Monday night's loss, "I'm really tired of that day-to-day stuff. It's been that way for the last two weeks." Of course, in Robinson's case, it's been much longer than that and it's unlikely he will play again until after the All-Star break.
Ruland, selected to the Eastern Conference team for the second consecutive year, has until Friday to notify the league whether or not he'll be able to play in the game Sunday in Indianapolis. Chances are he won't after aggravating his injury Friday in a 102-95 loss to the Indiana Pacers.
There was a time when the absences of the team's top two rebounders had a positive effect on the rest of the Bullets. More conscious of their collective shortcomings, players like Tom McMillen and Greg Ballard overcompensated and posted career highs. The team also learned to maximize each possession by taking care of the basketball and not turning it over.
"That's been the only thing keeping us alive, the fact that we're not making turnovers," Ferry said. "If you cut that down by 11 a game, that's 11 more opportunities to score, which is like 11 more rebounds. But some teams don't have one great rebounder. We've got two, but with both of them sidelined what can we expect?"
In winning six of nine games without the pair between Jan. 16 and 30, Washington surpassed all expectations, but that has worn off. As Shue admitted, and as was apparent in the loss to Cleveland, teams have become more intent on crashing the backboards, recognizing that as the key to beating Washington.
In addition, the fatigue of the remaining players, many of whom also are fighting off nagging hurts, has begun to manifest itself in subtle ways, such as a jump shot that consistently falls just short. A prime example of that is Williams. In the last 13 games, he has averaged 22 points and nine-plus assists. Over the last six games, the points-per-game average is 18.5 on just 36 percent shooting from the field.
In 11 of the 12 games that both Ruland and Robinson have been out, the Bullets have been outrebounded by an average of just under nine per game. Of course, even with Ruland and Robinson, the Bullets' board work had left much to be desired; for the season, opponents have outrebounded Washington by an average of 45-40.
Ferry says that despite the problems, "Teams still fear us, what we'll become when we get our people back." But Shue isn't sure exactly what that will be.
"Where will those players be physically when they get back? They just can't be how they were before they got hurt," he says. "It's going to be very similar to the start of the season.
"We were hoping to get the group together in time to prepare for the playoffs but it's not gonna happen now. We're not gonna set the world on fire."
That was the frustration of a third straight loss speaking for the normally upbeat coach. The truth of the matter lies somewhere between that view and Ferry's.
While probably not as good as that of the 76ers, Washington's bench is better than that of the Celtics, with the exception of Kevin McHale. Easily. The only question is whether it will be the starting lineup when it's time for the second season to begin.