When the Washington Bullets promised some exciting basketball this season, chances are they didn't have what happened last night against the Cleveland Cavaliers in mind.
Leading by 15 points entering the fourth quarter, the Bullets scored just 11 points in the final 12 minutes but were able to hang on for a 101-98 victory before 4,873 at Capital Centre.
Washington (4-8) was outscored in the last period by Ennis Whatley alone. A third-year guard who had logged just three minutes all season, Whatley took advantage of his chance to play after World B. Free injured his hamstring muscles. On the floor for the entire quarter, Whatley scored 14 points.
His final two came with just 19 seconds left and cut the Bullets' lead to 101-95. Those were thought to be garbage points. After all, Darren Daye had converted a three-point play just 11 seconds before that put Washington in control, and all that was left to do was run out the clock.
Things didn't work out that way. In the confusion generated by a full-court press, Washington's Jeff Ruland threw the ball away and, with seven seconds to play, Dirk Minniefield hit a three-point basket to make it 101-98.
Three seconds later, the Bullets' Gus Williams (team-high 19 points) was fouled but missed both free throws. However, after Cleveland took a timeout to set up a three-point attempt, the Bullets finally were able to put the game away when Dudley Bradley stole the inbounds pass.
After the game, neither coach appeared pleased with the outcome. "I thought we played very, very well for three quarters, but obviously I wasn't pleased at the way we finished the game," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "It was a game that we had total control of and we gave them the chance to tie it. We never should have been in that position. But we'll take the win."
With the loss, the Cavaliers fell to 5-8, a record that their coach, George Karl, said he was grateful to have, because "we just haven't played that well.
"The first half tonight we ran well in the transition game but didn't play five-on-five very well. In the second half we did that okay but we weren't able to get into the transition game. It just doesn't seem like we're on all five cylinders. Whether it's because of injuries or early in the season or whatever, I don't care. I don't get paid to make excuses, I get paid to win."
Of course, the same refrain has been heard from the Washington locker room after a number of games this season, usually after stretches similar to the Bullets' fourth quarter.
"The shots just weren't falling -- again," said Cliff Robinson, who had 16 points and a season-high 16 rebounds, but only two points and one rebound in the fourth period. "It seems like we go through those spurts every night, and it almost cost us again."
Washington was in total control for most of the game. The team had made 36 of 71 field-goal attempts, had outrebounded the Cavaliers by 41-25 and were leading, 90-75, going into the last quarter.
The Bullets scored only six points in the next 5:25, but that would seem like a mother lode compared to the remainder of the game. Jeff Malone's basket with 4:45 to go made the score 98-83 but there would be no further Bullets scoring until Daye's three-point play.
"We just couldn't get a basket. I looked up and we only had eight points and it was late in the game," said Shue. "I was calling the same plays, but you can't beat anyone showin' a big 11 points.
"A lot of that has to do with having one-on-one players, someone you can give the ball to and just say, 'Do it.' We don't have that kind of team. We have to rely mainly on jump shots. A one-on-one player dictates the game; he just takes control."
Surprisingly, the person that came closest to meeting that description was Whatley, who spent nearly the entire season in Coach Kevin Loughery's doghouse with the Chicago Bulls last year. Despite Whatley's lack of playing time with the Cavaliers, Karl said, "He's been very, very professional about the whole thing. We just haven't been able to find him the minutes."
They almost came too soon for the Bullets.