Those who have followed the Washington Bullets in recent weeks might be excused for acting a bit giddy at the thought of the team's 109-101 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers last night at Capital Centre.
With the victory, Washington ended a three-game losing streak and improved its record to 38-40. However, the Bullets remained in fourth place in the NBA's Atlantic Division, a game behind the New Jersey Nets, 108-104 victors over Milwaukee last night. The team that finishes third in the division at season's end will avoid the unenviable task of having to face the Philadelphia 76ers in the opening round of the playoffs.
Cleveland (34-44) has been, next to Boston, perhaps the best team in the Eastern Conference in recent weeks but that didn't matter last night. The main reason for that was Bullets guard Jeff Malone. Hampered recently by a sprained left ankle, Malone scored 36 points.
Gus Williams had 18 points and reserve Darren Daye 11 for the Bullets, who were further buoyed by their 50-44 edge in rebounds. And, although the visitors shot 38 free throws to Washington's 32, the Bullets made the most of their opportunities.
At the foul line, Washington made its first 31 attempts, something that, according to courtside statisticians, happens once every 9,462 times for a team shooting 74 percent, as Washington was entering the game.
"To me, it was simple why we won -- free throws," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "It makes a helluva difference if you're getting to the line. I couldn't tell you why we were able to tonight. We were trying to do the same things that we've tried in other games. I guess we were fouled in the act of shooting more."
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, were missing 13 of their 38 freebies during the loss, which brought to an end a six-game winning streak. According to Coach George Karl, the missed shots were a sign that his team was tired. "We missed way too many foul shots and that's a sign of fatigue," he said. "That's what did us in tonight."
Karl said another key in the game was the Bullets' fast break. "They outscored us in the transition game and that's the first time that's happened to us in awhile," he said.
Washington's ability to run off points in a hurry was evident throughout the game. For the night, the Bullets had six stretches of six or more consecutive points.
The most important run came early in the third quarter. With Malone leading the way with nine points, Washington outscored the visitors, 13-5, in a 2:06 span and took a 75-62 lead. For the period, Malone, the second-year guard from Mississippi State, registered 15 points and the Bullets took an 89-78 edge.
From that point, the team merely had to fend off intermittent attempts by Cleveland to get back into the game. The closest the Cavaliers would get was 106-99 with 1:06 to play, after World B. Free (a team-high 26 points) made a free throw. Naturally, he had missed the first.
And, perhaps just as fitting, after the miss Malone was the man to seal the victory for Washington, scoring his final points of the night on an 18-foot jumper with an assist from Williams.
"I was really hoping to come out aggressive tonight," said Malone. "I thought I felt the same way against Boston on Friday but I was just missing my shots. Tonight it felt good, though, and I was able to get into the flow."
Besides his ankle injury, Malone also has been hindered by a cold as well as the overall fatigue that accompanies a work schedule that includes playing against the likes of 6-foot-6 Michael Jordan one night and 5-9 John Bagley a short time later.
"Having Sunday off will help me a lot," Malone said. "There was a time in the first half that I had to take myself out of the game because I was getting run down. It's tough going from player to player like that, but in a way I like the idea of being able to do it. It's like having another asset to your game."
Of course, Malone's main claim to fame is his outside shooting. After a seven-for-16 night in Washington's 115-104 loss to Boston Friday, he rebounded with a 13-for-23 effort against Cleveland, continuing a 16-game stretch in which he has averaged more than 25 points per contest.