The odds of the Washington Bullets concluding the 1984-85 regular season with a .500 record are probably less than 50-50, but coaches and team members say reaching the break-even point isn't nearly as important as making the adjustments necessary to survive in the playoffs.
"We'd like to win some games this week, but playing well is the most important thing," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "We have to get our confidence up going into the playoffs, the feeling that when you go out on the floor, everything is in rhythm personally and for the team."
The Bullets (38-40) will finish the season with a four-games-in-five-nights stretch, starting Tuesday against the Atlanta Hawks at Capital Centre. The Bullets then will go on the road to face Milwaukee Wednesday and Detroit Friday before returning home to meet the Philadelphia 76ers.
Getting the three victories necessary to ensure a 41-41 record won't be easy. The Hawks are still in the running for a playoff berth, while the other three teams have a combined win-loss record of 153-80.
The Bullets had expectations of such success, but injuries, particularly to center Jeff Ruland, made hopes of a 50-win season impossible. Instead, the team will have to struggle to survive the first round of the playoffs.
This week could tell a lot about the playoffs for the Bullets because their opponent in the postseason will be one of the last three teams they face in the regular season. If the standings remain as they are, Washington (now fourth in the Atlantic Division) would face Philadelphia in the initial best-of-five series.
Washington could overtake the New Jersey Nets, who would go against the Pistons in the first round, but it is unlikely. New Jersey also has four games remaining and, like the Bullets, also against strong teams. The Nets play in Cleveland Tuesday, at home against Philadelphia Wednesday and Chicago Saturday, then travel the next day to Boston to end their season.
To top the Nets, the Bullets would have to make up two games in the standings, one to tie and another to gain sole possession of third place. Should the teams tie, the third spot would go to New Jersey on the basis of its 4-2 edge over Washington in their regular-season series.
The Bullets also would come out on the short end of a tie with Chicago, as the Bulls hold a 3-2 edge in that series. Chicago, a half-game behind Washington, has three games to play this week, but two are on the road. If the Bulls finish with the same or better overall record than Washington, the Bullets would draw Milwaukee in the first round of the playoffs.
Even though Shue and General Manager Bob Ferry feel it would take a miracle for Ruland to return before the conclusion of the season, neither they nor the players are ready to give up on the season.
"It's too early to write an obituary for us," said forward Tom McMillen. "There are games where we still play great. The trouble that we've had is sustaining our consistency, especially on defense. A team's offense will go up and down but you can't allow that to happen on defense. Recently, we've had a tendency when our offense goes flat to let our defense lag right behind it; that's been the most disturbing thing to me. But we can get over that. I've seen us do it before."
That was in late January when, playing without Ruland and Cliff Robinson, Washington won five of six games, mainly because of careful ball handling that largely avoided the fast break.
With an average of 15.7 miscues per game, the Bullets rank second in the NBA in turnovers. A shooting percentage of just under 48 percent, the sixth worst in the league, hasn't allowed the team to make the most of increased offensive opportunities.
"We're really not doing anything differently now than we did during that stretch," said Shue. "Perhaps the only change is trying to get Gus Williams out more in the open court, which is something we've tried to encourage."
This in an effort to reduce Washington's reliance on its half-court offense. One of the more refreshing things about the team's 109-101 victory over Cleveland Saturday was the Bullets' ability to get out on the break, something that was done with regularity with Ruland and Johnson in the lineup.
According to Cleveland Coach George Karl, continuing that trend would help the Bullets against the 76ers. "Every time we've played Philly, we've been able to just run right by them," said Karl, whose team has beaten the 76ers in their last four meetings. "I don't think the Bullets can beat Detroit or Milwaukee, but they can give Philly trouble, even in a half-court situation, if they were to get Ruland back."