Unlike pro basketball's regular season, in which preparation for any single contest in the 82-game schedule is hit and miss, the playoffs provide NBA teams an opportunity to probe thoroughly the strengths and weaknesses of an opponent.
When one team is conspicuously overmatched, such preparation is often futile. A few seasons ago, the Atlanta Hawks prepared a two-inch manual on the tendencies of the Philadelphia 76ers, only to be taken out in a sweep in their first-round series. However, when two teams are more evenly matched, subtle nuances may produce the difference between victory and defeat.
Usually, it is left to the less talented team to make adjustments to survive. Heading into Sunday's Game 2 of the best-of-five series against the 76ers (1 p.m., WDVM-TV-9), though, the Washington Bullets find themselves in an unusual situation as they take to the Spectrum floor. Although Washington was a 104-97 loser in Wednesday's opener, the Bullets have set the tone and left the favorites in a reactionary position.
Despite their 58-24 record, fourth best in the NBA, and the presence of Moses Malone, Philadelphia has one of the shortest front courts in the league. In Game 1, the 76ers started Bobby Jones over 6-foot-7 Charles Barkley to better combat 6-foot-9 Cliff Robinson, but found themselves frequently befuddled in trying to deal with a Washington front line of Robinson, Charles Jones (also 6-9) and 6-11 Jeff Ruland.
As the Sixers prepared for Game 2, Coach Billy Cunningham said he planned no changes, although looking for Ruland to start in his second game back from his long stay on the Bullets' injured list.
"Bobby (Jones) started last year in the playoffs," Cunningham said. And Cunningham plans to start Jones over rookie Charles Barkley again today.
The Bullets and Coach Gene Shue made the first move in the series, opening with Darren Daye at small forward over Greg Ballard. The idea was to make Julius Erving work harder defensively.
Somehow, the idea got lost over the course of the game. Part of the reason was the effectiveness of Washington's Ruland-Robinson-Jones front line, a combination that Shue almost stumbled upon. That group lacked cohesiveness, however. It became obvious when the Bullets committed seven turnovers in their last nine possessions.
For the last three days the team has tried to remedy that, teaming up those three in scrimmages. However, Shue wasn't certain how much time they'll be a unit Sunday. "The people we started weren't bad at all, we didn't dig a hole for ourselves," Shue said.
Whatever he decides -- big front line or small, Ruland at center or Rick Mahorn -- Shue said, "I've got great appreciation for all the players but decisions have to be made on the basis of winning and losing."
Necessity also has a role. Before traveling here today, the Bullets held a short workout at Bowie State College, with guard Jeff Malone a limited participant. He said there was "no way" his back, wrenched in the first half of Game 1 and aggravated Thursday, would idle him Sunday.
In case he can't go, though, Shue was considering placing Ballard in the back court to replace Malone. The thinking is, once again, that an outside shooter is needed to make Philadelphia pay for double-teaming the basketball inside. Ballard and Malone are the best outside shooters on the Bullets, but their ball-handling skills aren't comparable.
Ballard at guard would no doubt lead to an all-out 76ers' press, led by Maurice Cheeks, not to mention problems in establishing defensive matchups at the other end of the floor. Shue thinks his team could make the change work anyhow. "Of course you would have to pair Greg with a ball-handler like Gus (Williams), but you really have to have that outside shooter in the game."