For what ought to be their best chance of breaking a road losing streak that has reached seven games, the Washington Bullets traveled here today to prepare for a Sunday afternoon game against the Golden State Warriors, the third stop on the Bullets' six-game trip.
Winless away from Capital Centre since a 103-101 decision against the Utah Jazz on Jan. 16, the Bullets let an excellent chance slip out of their hands in Friday night's 93-89 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Portland's Memorial Coliseum traditionally is one of the toughest places for visiting NBA teams. The Trail Blazers have sold out 339 consecutive games and the crowd noise is as much of an intimidating factor as the Portland players or Jack Ramsay's coaching acumen.
Yet for most of the first three quarters of the game, the Bullets had overcome all of those things. When Greg Ballard scored on a jump shot from the left corner with 6:56 remaining in the third period, the visitors went in front, 64-48. But, with the 24-second clock preventing any four-corner, stalling offenses, such a margin is rarely maintained in an NBA game.
Even after the Trail Blazers scored 10 consecutive points over the next 2 minutes 20 seconds to make the score 64-58, Washington maintained some semblance of cool.
"Their team is a lot like the Los Angeles Lakers; they're going to get their running game going sooner or later, all you can hope to do is control it," said guard Dudley Bradley. "When a team starts coming back there's not much you can do, it's tough to control. What you need is something to slow them down."
Earlier in the game, the Bullets had accomplished this by executing their meticulous, patterned offense efficiently. When Washington is on top of its game, its ball movement serves a dual purpose, freeing players for open shots and slowing the game enough to control the overall tempo.
But now, as Portland made its run, the Bullets became less meticulous. Instead of running their offense through, passing the ball for up to 20 seconds of the 24-second clock, the Bullets began to put shots up more quickly, sometimes after a single pass.
The third quarter ended with the Bullets holding a 72-67 lead but reeling. The Trail Blazers knew it and the crowd sensed it. Silent for much of the game, the 12,666 in attendance began to roar, anticipating the comeback.
It was soon 72-71 on Jerome Kersey's layup. Kersey, a rookie from obscure Longwood College, was in the game mainly because of early foul trouble by guard Jim Paxson. Paxson had been controlled by Jeff Malone and Bradley for the most part, but Kersey, 6 feet 7 and 225 pounds, is consistently effective bullying his way inside. For the game he would score 15 points and get five rebounds.
Rick Mahorn and Gus Williams scored in succession for Washington, making the score 80-75, Bullets, 8:10 to play. By now, however, they were out of sync and the game was getting away.
"That's something that happens to all teams," said Ramsay. "No one ever says it but when you get a lead like they did, subconsciously you tend to get too secure."
Over the next 2:33, the Bullets scored two points, but later they rebuilt their lead to 87-80.
Kersey made one of two free throws 15 seconds later; then came, in Bullets Coach Gene Shue's opinion, the biggest play of the game.
The call from Ramsay to point guard Darnell Valentine was "open," a potential three-point field goal attempt. Because of some earlier scouting of the Trail Blazers, Shue knew it. "We played it very well," he said. "They tend to look for Paxson on that play so we forced the ball away from him and toward (Clyde) Drexler."
But Drexler, known better for his forays to the hoop, made the three-point shot to cut it to 87-84.
Mychal Thompson scored and the margin was down to 87-86 with 3:03 to go. After a timeout, the Bullets executed their set play, but with the shot clock running down, Cliff Robinson's jumper was blocked by Thompson and the Trail Blazers recovered the ball.
Valentine worked the ball to Thompson, who stuffed it through for an 88-87 Portland lead, the team's first of the game. The Bullets never caught up.