The Washington Bullets were unable to finish what they started against the New Jersey Nets tonight at Brendan Byrne Arena, watching a 10-point halftime lead dissolve into their third straight loss, 112-106.
The Bullets will try to end their losing string Wednesday night at Capital Centre against the San Antonio Spurs.
Nets forward Buck Williams scored 17 of his 25 points after intermission, which divided two distinct halves of basketball. Jeff Ruland led Washington (2-3) with 21 points and 12 rebounds in a game played before 8,649.
In the opening half, the Bullets, heretofore slow starters, easily surpassed any level of play displayed since the season began. Executing their offense to perfection, the squad seemed to be capable of doing nearly anything it wished. While taking a 14-point lead, layups set up jump shots and vice versa, so ideal was the Bullets' blend of set offense and fast breaks.
Things were going so well that on one occasion in the second quarter, the 24-second clock stopped while New Jersey had the ball. Referee Terry Durham instructed the scoring table to move it down to 21. But after a quick word from Bullets Coach Gene Shue, the official moved it down to 18.
But all of the good play was supplanted by an almost total run of bad luck and bad play in the second half, which started with the Bullets in front, 56-46. Early in the third period, guard Gus Williams lost his balance -- and the ball -- crossing the half-court line.
The combined misfortune and lost lead left Coach Gene Shue in a curt mood after the game. He and assistant Fred Carter waited for a time outside the locker room before addressing the team. When he did emerge some 10 minutes later, the anger had subsided somewhat.
"I thought we had things very easy in the first half -- all our plays were working," he said. "But things don't stay that way for a whole game -- it's impossible. You have to work harder to get the same good shots you were getting before. But in our first five or six possessions in the second half we had turnovers or did something wrong."
Of the Bullets' 27 turnovers, nine came in the third period. Four of them were in the opening two minutes, but that didn't hurt as much as two that came in the final 2:45 and enabled the Nets to take a 77-76 lead.
The breakdown continued at the start of the final 12 minutes. Tom McMillen was called for an offensive foul 16 seconds into the quarter. Eighteen seconds after that, Buck Williams made a three-point play to put the Nets ahead, 80-76.
Less than two minutes later, Washington was down by 88-78, as everything that had transpired so easily before became excruciatingly difficult.
"I thought we were handling them pretty well, then I looked up and we were down," said forward Cliff Robinson (20 points). "I couldn't pinpoint what was happening, just suddenly, bang, bang, bang -- we were losing."
With 5:45 remaining, Shue made what he called "a desperation move," inserting a trapping defensive unit of center Manute Bol, guards Perry Moss and Dudley Bradley, and forwards Darren Daye and Charles Jones. The team fell behind by 13 points, but just as quickly got the score back to a workable margin, 104-96, with 2:37 left.
"You always have a chance," said Shue. "You never know what might happen. A three-point shot, a turnover and you're right back in it."
With 1:56 remaining, a three-pointer by Gus Williams made the score 106-99. Ruland's free throw 14 seconds later cut the margin to six. Soon thereafter came the play that sealed Washington's fate.
A three-pointer by guard Jeff Malone cut the Nets' lead to 108-103 with 53 seconds to play. Nineteen seconds later, Malone had the ball in the open court on a fast break. Again pulling up outside the three-point line, Malone hit another shot. But the basket, which would have made the score 108-106, was disallowed when he was called for traveling.
"I was just trying to get into my stride. It didn't feel funny at all," Malone said. "The pros -- I was surprised they called it. I've seen a lot more than that let go."
Like much of the second half, it left the Bullets wondering.