Ending a stretch of frustration that began back on Halloween night, the Washington Bullets ended a nightmarish seven-game losing streak with a 118-97 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers last night before 11,984 at Capital Centre.
There was more than a fair amount of magic and wonder in the win. An incredible sweeping, swooping reverse layup by Julius Erving was eclipsed by the sight of Moses Malone, the 76ers' brutish center, being forced away from beneath his basket by the spidery presence of 7-foot-7 Manute Bol.
"That just doesn't happen very often," said an awed Cliff Robinson. "Manute must have been doing something right."
He was not alone in that category. In the Bullets' first home victory this season, Jeff Malone scored a season-high 32 points. Robinson scored 23, also a season high. Forward Darren Daye tied his season and career highs with 21, and Dan Roundfield, who had 12 rebounds, fell just short of his season mark with 24 points.
"That wasn't just good, it was great," said Robinson. "You don't know how good it was. That wasn't a monkey off our backs, it was a gorilla."
The prospect of Washington ending its losing streak last night seemed pretty remote before the start of the game. It was then that center Jeff Ruland discovered that a bruised left shin, suffered in Friday night's 118-114 loss to the Boston Celtics, had sidelined him.
Washington's starting front line of Robinson, Roundfield and Charles Jones seemed small in comparison to Philadelphia's, which comprised Charles Barkley, Malone and Erving. But Ruland's misfortune worked to the Bullets' advantage.
"One of the things I was not happy to see was Ruland not in the lineup," said Philadelphia Coach Matty Guokas. "They had nothing to lose without their center, and they played free and loose."
There also was an advantage strategically for the Bullets. Playing three forwards forced Moses Malone to the outside on defense. That accomplished, the middle was open, and Robinson and Roundfield took advantage of the lack of congestion.
Robinson hit his first six shots from the field, scoring the Bullets' first 11 points and 13 of their initial 19. When he went to the bench late in the opening quarter, Roundfield took over, scoring 20 of his 24 in the first two periods.
"I felt like someone had to step up and get the team off to a good start," Robinson said. "We have to make things happen. You can't lay back and let things happen against Philly or any team in the league."
At the other end of the floor, Jones, who prepared for his unenviable defensive assignment against Malone both in Philadelphia and in various gymnasiums around Malone's home in Houston, fronted the all-star center, making it difficult for the 76ers to work the ball inside to him.
"Cliff and Dan told me to just keep him away from the boards, and they would get the rebounds," said Jones, who had seven rebounds and blocked six shots. "Playing against him so much, I know that you can't let him get the ball deep in the post, or else it's two points or he's fouled. I was fronting him, but it looked like the 76ers changed their offense. It didn't look like they were trying very hard to get the ball to him."
Malone, who came into the game averaging 24 points and 17 shots a game, was in a frosty mood after getting just 21 and 12, respectively.
"Were you watching the game?" he replied when asked if Jones did anything especially different on defense. "If you did, just tell it like you saw it."
From any vantage point, most would agree that the game turned at the beginning of the fourth period. Daye and Jeff Malone combined for 16 points as the Bullets extended an 85-79 third-quarter lead to 105-92 with 4:55 to play.
Daye scored 17 of his points in the final 24 minutes, but Jeff Malone was a model of consistency throughout the game, registering totals of nine, seven, eight and eight points in the four quarters.
The third-year guard said his shooting (11 for 20 from the field) was the "best I've felt this season," but he added that there was indeed a lift of sorts from Ruland's absence.
"I think things like that tend to motivate teams," he said.
"I can recall a game against Boston last year when Larry Bird didn't play. Everyone on our team relaxed a bit, and Scott Wedman came out and had a big night."
In the Washington locker room, a couple of bottles of champagne materialized after the game, but less than three feet from where they sat, Roundfield put a capper of sorts on all the euphoria.
"It really feels great to win, but it was just one game," he said. "Let's wait about a week. If we've won eight or nine in a row, come talk to me then."