The final days? Perish the thought.
At least that was the impression given by the Washington Bullets yesterday as they practiced at Bowie State College for perhaps the last time this season. Trailing, 2-0, in their best-of-five playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers, Washington will try to stave off elimination in tonight's 7:30 game at Capital Centre.
If unsuccessful in their attempt, the team's next gathering at Bowie will be to collect practice garments that will no longer be of service. However, despite a 1 1/2-hour workout that sometimes bordered on raggedness, the players were certain they'd be back practicing Thursday.
"Don't even concern yourself about it; we aren't," said guard Frank Johnson, who perhaps had more reason for concern than any of his teammates. Johnson, who has been sidelined since Feb. 7 with a broken bone in his left foot, played well in a full-court scrimmage and will return to the lineup against the 76ers.
The thought brought a smile to Coach Gene Shue, who never has needed an excuse for positive thinking. Speaking of his team's practice, Shue saw through the numerous gaffes being committed.
"I thought today was terrific. We were able to work on all the things that we haven't been doing. Stuff like rebounding, length-of-the-floor defense and half-court defense," he said. "It was a very good workout."
But Shue had to admit he was pressing his optimism. "It's not hard for me to do that, though," he continued. "If you had me wrestled to the ground, tied up and getting ready to burn me at the stake I'd still believe that I'd find a way to get out of it."
There are those who believe that would be as likely as Washington coming back against the 76ers, who Sunday routed the Bullets, 113-94.
Or, as center Moses Malone put it after the game, "They're on death row and we've showed them the electric chair."
The Bullets worked on a couple of different wrinkles for the game. Although Shue said that he doesn't "want to be giving away our strategy," it was obvious that something along the lines of a full-court press may be in the works.
Johnson would play a big role in that, as well as in the team's half-court defensive sets. "The Sixers are really good at getting the ball to the open people if you double-team," said Shue. "But that's one of Frank's strengths. He's great at picking people up or doubling down on the low post and recovering back out to the point where his man isn't able to get a shot off."
Although subjected to taunts suggesting that a stranger had stumbled onto the practice floor, Johnson was in good spirits following the workout, his first in more than two months. "I was ready to run on it last Saturday but we didn't do any scrimmaging," he said. "It feels great being back and on the court and around the guys again."
During the practice, Johnson nearly matched the intoxicating offensive moves of Gus Williams step for step and feint for feint. And, at one point, the fourth-year veteran got all the proof he needed that he was ready for the physical rigors of the playoffs.
That came during the scrimmage when Williams, driving to the basket, moved between Johnson and Tom McMillen, who collided in an attempt to defend against the move. All three fell to the floor but no one was hurt. Johnson said the fall "was a big scare but helped me realize that I can play."
The same may not be said for forward Charles Jones, who twisted an ankle in Sunday's game and sat out yesterday's practice for treatment. While Shue felt that Jones would be available, he said some of his court time would be taken over by Rick Mahorn. "Charles Barkley has really hurt us and we've been getting outmuscled a lot," Shue said. "I had already decided that Rick would play more. That way we can go with some muscle of our own."
With Mahorn at power forward, Jeff Ruland at center and Cliff Robinson at the other forward spot, the muscle would be there and could cause some matchup problems for Philadelphia. But no matter who is guarding him, Shue added that it's important for Robinson to assert himself offensively.
"If they have Barkley on him we may isolate him, if it's Bobby Jones we may post Cliff up," Shue said. "But Cliff has also got to be active himself, scoring some points on tip-ins and fast-break baskets."