In what figures to be the first "big" game of the remainder of their season, the Washington Bullets hope to hang on to third place in the NBA's Atlantic Division as well as an advantageous playoff seeding when they take on the New Jersey Nets tonight at Capital Centre (HTS at 7:30).
A 124-111 loss to the Denver Nuggets, combined with the Nets' 114-91 victory over Atlanta, has left the teams a half-game apart in the standings. The Nets and Bullets haven't met since Dec. 19, when New Jersey beat Washington, 115-106, avenging a 104-95 loss to the Bullets the night before.
At that point, the Bullets had a 15-12 record, 3 1/2 games above the Nets, who were 11-15. Since then, however, New Jersey has come on with a rush, compiling an 18-14 record. Washington, on the other hand, has gone 15-17.
Much of the Bullets' troubles can be attributed to injuries, but, in that regard, they have nothing on New Jersey. Cliff Robinson has missed 23 of Washington's 59 games, one more than center Jeff Ruland. In all, Washington players have missed 66 games because of injury.
New Jersey is second to the New York Knicks in player-games missed this season -- 171. Darryl Dawkins, coming off the best season in his 10-year NBA career, in which he averaged almost 17 points and seven rebounds a game, has been troubled by back problems, missing 43 contests.
"It's been an unbelievable year, I've never encountered anything like it," said Nets Coach Stan Albeck. "I've tried to maintain my sanity, but I must admit there's not much left. The injuries affect the way you substitute, the way you think, the way you act. It's gotten to the point where psychologically you have to just accept the fact that there's going to be someone missing every game and then try to go on from there."
In the Nets' victory over Atlanta Wednesday, the team dressed only eight players but triumphed because of inspired play by substitute guards Kelvin Ransey (17 points, 17 assists) and Darwin Cook (20 points).
Against Washington, the Nets will start Jeff Turner, an Olympic gold medalist, at small forward because of injuries to Albert King (rotator cuff) and Mike O'Koren (broken wrist). The team signed journeyman Kevin McKenna after those two injuries, but he's also out of action (pulled groin muscle), leading Albeck to moan, "We apparently aren't allowed to have a small forward play for our team."
What the Nets have is an abundance of talent at guard. Besides Ransey and Cook, starters Micheal Ray Richardson is an all-star and Otis Birdsong leads the team in scoring with 21 points per game.
In that sense, New Jersey closely resembles the Bullets. Birdsong and Richardson combine for 40 points a game, the highest-scoring guard duo in the NBA. Washington's pairing of Gus Williams and Jeff Malone ranks third, behind the L.A. Clippers' Norm Nixon and Derek Smith, with 37 points.
This season, Birdsong and Richardson have taken 35 percent of New Jersey's field goal attempts and scored 34 percent of its points. For the Bullets, Williams and Malone have taken 35 percent of the shots and accounted for 33 percent of the points.
In the last 20 games, the number that Ruland has missed due to a strained right shoulder, Williams and Malone have taken 42 percent of the team's field goal attempts and scored 39 percent of its points. In Wednesday's loss to Denver which left the Bullets a single game above .500, Malone led the Bullets with 30 points and Williams had 21.
The contest, and the team's listless play, was as puzzling to members of the Bullets as it was disappointing to them. "On the surface it seemed like we had everything going for us," forward Greg Ballard said. "We were coming back from a long trip and had a good win under our belts. We were playing at home but things just didn't come together. That's what makes it such a funny game, you just never know what will happen."