The Washington Bullets' hopes for a favorable playoff seeding received a double jolt this evening. While the Bullets were falling, 106-97, to the Bucks here at the Mecca, the New Jersey Nets were routing the Philadelphia 76ers at the Meadowlands.
As a result, Washington (39-41) missed out on a chance to reach the .500 mark and fell a game behind the Nets in the quest for third place in the NBA's Atlantic Division. With just two games remaining, it appears more and more likely that the Bullets' opponent in the first round of the playoffs will be the 76ers and not the Detroit Pistons, considered an easier foe.
Although they played well for much of the evening, the Bullets fell prey to a 33-22 third-quarter burst by Milwaukee that included an 18-10 run in the last five minutes of the period.
The game's high scorer was the Bucks' Sidney Moncrief with 27 points while teammate Terry Cummings had 23. Greg Ballard had 26 for the Bullets, who got 17 points from Jeff Malone and 14 from Darren Daye.
Although his team fell short in its effort, Bullets Coach Gene Shue felt encouraged by its fourth-quarter comeback from a 13-point deficit. "We got close enough to win and that was a good sign," he said. "We're coming off of two good games and that's encouraging for the playoffs."
There is, of course, still a chance that the Bullets could meet the Bucks in the opening round of postseason play. Washington is only a game in front of the Chicago Bulls for the Eastern Conference's sixth seed in the playoffs. If the two teams should finish with identical records, the Bulls would get the mixed blessing of finishing in front of Washington but having to do battle with the 76ers.
Although Shue said after the game that the Bullets have "no advantage" against either Milwaukee or Philadelphia, his team accomplished a number of things tonight that could place them in good stead versus the Bucks.
For one, there was the comeback. Playing a strong game against the Central Division champions, the Bullets actually held a 50-49 lead at halftime and were tied with the Bucks at 60 with less than eight minutes to play in the third period.
From that point, however, Moncrief and Cummings took over, putting the Bucks on top, 82-72, after three quarters and 96-83 with just 7:34 to play. But Washington worked its way back into the game behind the play of Malone and Gus Williams.
Malone, on the bench most of the first half because of three personal fouls, scored five straight points and, after a jumper by Paul Pressey (18 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists), Williams added four and Malone struck again to make the score 98-94 with 2:55 to play.
The Bullets would eventually cut the lead to 99-97 on Rick Mahorn's free throw at the 1:18 mark, but two free throws by Moncrief 20 seconds later put the lead back at four.
The Bullets took a timeout at that point. After the break, the team chose to inbound the basketball at midcourt and Charles Jones' pass was picked off by Pressey. Nineteen seconds after that, Cummings converted a three-point play, giving the Bucks a 104-97 lead and their 57th victory of the season against 23 losses.
"I thought about bringing the ball the length of the court but decided to play at half court to save some time," Shue said. "We knew they would put some pressure on the ball . . . that was a big play."
To their credit, despite 42 percent shooting from the field, the Bullets were able to make their comeback on the heels of some strong defensive work. Said forward Cliff Robinson, "We weren't exactly burning the nets down on offense but we played them tough on the other end of the floor, tougher than the last time we met, and I think we can play them even better."
That would come in handy in the event of a Milwaukee-Washington playoff series, as would the good job the Bullets did of responding to the Bucks' myriad defensive schemes. According to Moncrief, "Every time we tried to do something tricky on defense, they made us pay the price."