Guard World B. Free, who has averaged more then 25 points a game against the Washington Bullets this season, scored a game-high 32 points and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 122-107 victory over the Bullets at the Coliseum here tonight.
Many of Free's points came off feeds from his backcourt running mate, John Bagley, who had 16 assists.
Free scored 11 in a 2:19 span of the third period as part of an 18-point run by Cleveland that converted a close game into a rout and put Bullets assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff in the unenviable position of trying to perform a near-miracle.
Bickerstaff stepped in as the Bullets' acting coach when Gene Shue was ejected in the third quarter and the Cavaliers were well on their way to their fourth straight victory.
Behind 8-0 after the first two minutes of the game, the Bullets had to play catch-up the entire game. But when Gus Williams hit a jump shot with 5:20 remaining in the third period, Washington had closed to 66-64.
It was another 3:43, though, before the visitors scored again, the Bullets turning the ball over three times in that span as well as giving the Cavaliers three points on free throws after technical fouls.
Two of those technicals were called on Shue by referee Bennett Salvatore, the target of Shue's barbs for nearly the entire evening. "I didn't get the technicals trying to spur on the team, I was aggravated all night, period," Shue said. "I was yelling all night, he could have called them at any time. Things weren't going well and when that happens you yell and scream."
After picking up the second technical, Shue sat down meekly on the Washington bench and in the confusion the ball was nearly placed in play again before Cleveland Coach George Karl could point out that Shue had not left the premises. When he finally departed, many in the crowd of 6,886 gave Shue a standing ovation.
That was the most uplifting moment that Washington (37-38) had all evening. Jeff Malone, who twisted his left ankle early in the game, came back from a four-point first half to finish with a team-high 24 points. Cliff Robinson, playing against his former teammates for the first time this season, scored 16 and had eight rebounds. Robinson was traded by the Cavaliers to the Bullets in June, but has been injured much of this season.
Off the bench, both Tom McMillen and Greg Ballard played well for Washington, adding 13 and 18 points, respectively. Yet somehow, all the fine individual efforts fell well short of a winning whole. Shue gave much of the credit for that to Cleveland, 32-43 following an atrocious 2-19 start.
"They played great all night, I think it's terrific the way Cleveland has been playing," he said. "The fans have been coming out again and screaming . . . their chemistry is obviously right now. That thing sort of comes and goes and right now it's all working for them."
So much so that the team is on the verge of making the NBA playoffs for the first time since 1978. Currently 2 1/2 games in front of Atlanta for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, the Cavaliers' magic number for clinching over the Hawks is down to five.
Said Karl, "I've never denied that I'm not watching the scoreboard. It's probably the most expensive thing I'm doing, calling the Sportsphone every 15 minutes."
Free emphasized the team accomplishments rather than his personal success tonight. "It's not that I light them up so much but things work out because we match up so well against them (Bullets)," he said. "If a team isn't very big we can match up pretty well with them. The ones that give us trouble are teams with people like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Robert Parish."
Cleveland's 16 offensive rebounds were a clear sign that Washington is without a pivot man of that caliber. "Some of them were fouls over our backs but they just got too many boards," said Malone. "We really let them do too many things, and World, you know how World is once he gets going."
In case they had forgotten, the Bullets were reminded tonight.