Hurting from a string of six losses in their previous eight games, the Washington Bullets suddenly got well tonight at the expense of their favorite patsies, the Knicks. Using strong play at the beginning and end of the fourth quarter, the Bullets defeated New York, 109-97, at Madison Square Garden.
With the victory, their fifth straight this season against New York, the Bullets climbed back above the .500 mark at 31-30 and recorded their 11th road victory. Last season, Washington won only 10 contests away from Capital Centre.
As is usually the case whenever he plays, Bernard King of the Knicks was the game's high scorer with 34 points. Gus Williams led Washington with 27 and Greg Ballard had 22. When Ballard wasn't making things happen, reserve Darren Daye was, providing strong play late in the game. Daye scored 10 points, all on free throws.
Leading by as many as 13 points, 93-80, the Bullets had to weather a strong closing rush by New York. Keyed by their stifling pressure defense, the Knicks cut that margin down to 97-92 on Louis Orr's offensive rebound with 3:14 to play.
The Bullets called a timeout before outscoring the Knicks, 12-5, the remainder of the contest. Although at times it appeared that his team was close to falling apart at the flailing hands of the New York defenders, Coach Gene Shue said he wasn't overly concerned.
"I'm so used to that, almost every pro game the other team will make a run," he said. "It was sort of deceiving because basically we handled their press for the majority of the game."
The game was far from an artistic gem, but that's usually the case against the slow-it-down New Yorkers, who have been without centers Bill Cartwright and Marvin Webster for the entire season. When the team refused to re-sign Williams' brother Ray, a free-agent guard, the overall lack of offense necessitated the one-man gang that is Bernard King, the league's leading scorer at 32.6 points a game.
It has also virtually guaranteed the Knicks a place in the NBA's postseason lottery for the league's seven worst teams, the reward being the first selection in June's draft. The Bullets won't be a part of that, preferring to make their big noise in the playoffs.
Recently, that sound has been considerably sour, but according to Williams, it need not remain that way. Making only 10 of 37 shots in the last two Washington games, both losses, Williams was 11 for 22 against New York. In all three games, his demeanor remained constant.
"Basically this is a young team," said Williams, 31. "I've been through two championship series and I know how long the season is. I'm not sure if it's physical or mental but there are going to be some down times. Things didn't work out last game so you try and dig a little deeper the next. The thing is to get everyone to contribute."
For his part, Daye had been little more than a spectator in recent games. Benched by Shue for indifferent play, the second-year forward's playing time has been limited. However, since missing the Bullets' 123-115 victory at Houston a week ago with flu, Daye has played as aggressively as he did earlier in the season.
In Friday night's 100-98 loss to New Jersey, he scored 17 points in 21 minutes. Tonight, he was zero for four from the field but managed to go repeatedly to the foul line because of his strong play inside.
"I'm still not quite comfortable, because of not playing for that spell and getting sick, but last night helped get me into the flow of things and it continued tonight," Daye said. "Things were tough for a time, especially when you get into a game and only play for a couple of minutes, you tend to lose your confidence. Now I'm looking forward to continuing to help the team."
What would really help Washington is to be able to play the Knicks a few more times, instead of the one remaining contest at Capital Centre three weeks hence. Shue cannot quite explain the Bullets' success against the Knicks.
"There's no way to pinpoint it, I guess if you had to look for something the matchups are as good as any other reason," he said. "There are times when we make a couple of mistakes out on the floor against their pressure but for the most part, we make it work for us, and when we haven't, we've had enough cushion on the scoreboard to ride it out."