The Washington Bullets lost for the fifth time in their last six home games, falling to the Milwaukee Bucks, 107-100, last night before 8,856 at Capital Centre.
On the surface, it would be easy to attribute the loss -- coming one night after an inspired 115-109 victory in New York over the Knicks -- as merely part of the Bullets' perplexing NBA season. The team has won two, then lost seven straight on the road; lost four, then won nine straight at home; and now has won four straight away from Capital Centre but is suffering at home once again.
But that explanation doesn't give enough credit to Milwaukee, 23-12 and on top of the Central Division, which it has ruled for the last five seasons. Last night, the Bucks showed why. Working just within the league's zone-defense boundaries, they used a switching, double-teaming defense to stymie Washington's isolation-oriented offense.
Most affected were the Bullets' guards, Gus Williams and Jeff Malone. The pair combined for 69 points Thursday night against the Knicks but they were only 10 for 33 from the field against the Bucks. The entire Washington back court shot just 33 percent (16 for 48).
"When you have players who come off picks and the defense jumps out and switches, it makes it hard to get the shots off and breaks things up," said Malone.
Added forward Dan Roundfield: "They definitely make it tough on you offensively, no doubt. You have to run simpler stuff than you normally might."
Cliff Robinson led the Bullets (16-16) with 26 points but was nine for 23 from the field. The game's high scorer was Milwaukee's Terry Cummings in a performance that was distinctly different from his effort in Washington's 110-108 victory on Dec. 12.
In that game, the forward was a dreadful four for 25 from the field. Last night he made 14 of 23 field goal attempts en route to 31 points. Many of those points came on short jump shots or after Milwaukee offensive rebounds. For the game, the Bucks had 17 offensive rebounds.
"They shot much, much better as a whole than they did last time, Cummings in particular," said Washington Coach Gene Shue. "Because we're trapping so much, our defense gives up open shots, provided the team can find the open player. They were able to do that tonight."
Even so, the Bullets were able to hang tough for much of the game, even taking a 72-71 lead late in the third quarter. From that point, though, the Bucks scored 11 straight points to take control.
"We held them to a range where we had a chance to win," said Shue. "We just let the game get out of hand in that one stretch. All of a sudden their lead got up to eight or nine points."
It was only fitting that the run was ignited by the Milwaukee defense -- Paul Pressey blocking Freeman Williams' jump shot, which led to a fast-break basket by Ricky Pierce -- given the Bucks' effort on defense.
"We knew they would try to go against our mismatch to Robinson (who was being guarded by Pressey, at 6-5 four inches shorter than the Washington forward)," said Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson. "We changed our matchups and traps three different times so that they couldn't key on the double teams. We had to try and keep them guessing about what we were going to do and when."
Speaking of guessing games, the Bucks didn't seem as awed by the presence of Washington center Manute Bol as they did in the earlier game. In that contest, the 7-foot-7 rookie blocked a franchise-record 12 shots. Last night he blocked four -- all in the first half -- as Milwaukee went to the basket harder.
"It's kind of a happy medium that you have to try and attain," said Nelson. "You have to know that he's there, but you can't have him interrupt how you normally play and run your offense. By the same token, you can't be stubborn and just try to take it to the basket and score on him."