The Washington Bullets spent most of tonight's game against the Philadelphia 76ers in a dream state. After an embarrassing blowout by Cleveland at the Capital Centre on Monday night, the prospects for tonight's game at the Spectrum against the 76ers seemed dim.
Yet, thanks to a 17-8 second quarter run, there they were, up by 44-37 and in control of the game. That run was made with Philadelphia's all-star center, Moses Malone, and playmaker Maurice Cheeks on the bench. But when they returned, the Bullets increased their lead.
From then on, one kept expecting reality to set in, with Philadelphia blowing the Bullets away with a flurry of points, but it never happened. Whenever the 76ers spurted, the Bullets matched it, and, with 56 seconds remaining in the game, the Bullets trailed by only 108-107.
Although the 76ers eventually won, 116-111, one got the impression that it was more a matter of surviving than anything else. At least that's how Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham saw it.
"This was a game that all we did was outscore the other team," he said. "We didn't play the type of defense we are capable of or will need if we expect to be productive down the stretch."
Washington Coach Gene Shue was even less pleased, despite what could be considered a moral victory. "Quite honestly I wasn't pleased at all with the game tonight," he said. "Number one, I don't like losing and, secondly, I don't like playing close."
Helped by excellent outside shooting, good execution and balanced scoring, the Bullets were indeed in position to take the game, despite the continued absence of Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson, neither of whom made the trip here. Greg Ballard scored 28 points, Jeff Malone 27, Tom McMillen 20 and Gus Williams 17. The team was beaten by only 46-35 in rebounding.
In addition, Philadelphia's long-range shooter, Andrew Toney, was held scoreless. But the inside work of Malone (27 points and 20 rebounds) proved to be too strong, as was the lift the 76ers received from substitute Sedale Threatt, who made seven of 10 shots and scored 16 points.
Then there was the matter of turnovers, 15 of them for the Bullets. Foul trouble presented another problem for Washington. Rick Mahorn used up his quota of six trying to stop Malone and McMillen ended the game with five.
Those problems led to a somewhat humorous sight in the first half, when with Mahorn and McMillen on the bench, Shue had to send Guy Williams into the game. Joining Darren Daye and Ballard on the front line, there was a moment's hesitation among the players where they tried to decide who would get the honor of taking on Malone.
Ballard was the winner -- or loser -- in that instance, but the fact that the vignette even occurred was what had Shue upset after the game. "We did fine, we did fine, but the players that should be here aren't," he said. "The game came down to making a big play and we didn't. We had to play a nearly perfect game and we didn't. That was all the Sixers needed."
That was obvious the last 12 minutes. The Bullets entered the quarter with an 82-77 lead but shot 38 percent from the field. That five-point margin quickly evaporated beneath a 27-16 Philadelphia run over the first nine minutes of the period.
But down by 104-98 with 2:25 to play in the game, the Bullets once again cut the score to 108-107 after two free throws by Gus Williams. On Philadelphia's subsequent possession, the Bullets clamped down defensively and appeared to have registered a stop when Malone took an off-balance shot that just beat the 24-second clock.
McMillen had the rebound briefly, but the ball was stripped from his hands by Bobby Jones, who scored to make it 110-107. Following a timeout, Washington was unable to get off a quick three-point attempt and Jeff Malone's short jumper in the lane rimmed out. Cheeks, who scored a season-high 25 points, gathered the loose ball and fed Jones (16 points), running downcourt, for a dunk.
Once again put in the position of having to attempt three-pointers, the Bullets not only couldn't connect but couldn't get any of the long-range shots off because of the defense.