Tonight at the Mecca, the Washington Bullets were made clearly aware of the difference between the NBA's elite and not-so-elite teams. After getting the best of such second-division squads as the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers and Chicago Bulls, the Bullets fell to the Milwaukee Bucks, 114-98.
That's not to say that the undermanned visitors were unable to make a go of things. After trailing by 23 points, the Bullets cut their deficit to six, 95-89, with just over five minutes to play.
But, as had been the case for most of the evening, Terry Cummings was able to set things right for the Bucks. The forward scored a game-high 35 points, but that was not as critical a contribution to the victory as team preparation. After scouting the Bullets in their 117-113 win over Chicago Tuesday night, Milwaukee assistant coach Mike Schuler presented his squad with a 10-page guide to Washington's strengths and weaknesses.
Forward Cliff Robinson missed the game because of a strained Achilles' tendon, but there was some good news tonight: the Bullets activated Jeff Ruland from the injured list. The move was mostly cosmetic, however. The center is still 10 days to two weeks away from playing, but the recent release of guards Ennis Whatley and Freeman Williams left the team with only 10 active players, one short of the NBA's minimum.
Besides Leon Wood's 25 points, Gus Williams' 24 and Dan Roundfield's 20 points and 10 rebounds, the Bullets didn't display a whole lot of their strengths tonight and Milwaukee, the league's best defensive team, exposed virtually all of their weaknesses.
Apart from a run of 10 points in the final two minutes of the third period, Washington was unable to score more than five consecutive points. The reason was a combination of Cummings, who made 17 of 24 field goal attempts, and the Milwaukee defense, which is allowing an average of only 105 points a game, holding opponents to 43 percent shooting from the field.
"We do a lot of that, taking teams out of things, or at least making it as difficult as possible for them," said Bucks Coach Don Nelson. "We did a good job of scouting but they adjusted well. It's fun coaching against Gene (Shue). He makes you work."
Nelson felt that the Bullets were able to accomplish what he considered their main objective coming into the game, "They made it ugly and controlled the tempo," he said. "Even when we were up by 20, they were the ones setting the pace."
The problem was, the Bullets weren't getting any tangible results. Throughout the first half, it seemed like their offense consisted largely of a missed shot followed by a Roundfield rebound. If Roundfield didn't hit the basket -- and often he didn't -- Milwaukee more often than not took advantage at the other end of the floor.
For the game, the Bucks shot 51 percent from the field, led, of course, by Cummings, who had shot only 37 percent against Washington in two other meetings this season.
"Things have been a lot better than that lately," he said. "Tonight was the best I've felt this season. I've been doing a lot of practicing to get more relaxed."
The Bullets, who had 20 turnovers for the game and seemed to flounder in their half-court offense, didn't begin to get into gear until the late going. "I like to coach a whole lot of players who can do things and then set up situations where they can function best," said Shue.
Tonight, that came when Washington increased the pressure with its trapping defense and let Williams and Wood go to work. The two scored eight of the 10 Bullets points in their run at the end of the third quarter that closed the Bucks' lead to 83-70.
The back-court pair then scored 23 of the Bullets' last 28 points. A three-point jumper by Wood closed Washington to six, 98-92, with 4:09 to play. The Bullets forced a Milwaukee turnover but then committed one of their own. The next player to score was Cummings, and Washington came no closer than seven for the remainder of the game.
"We definitely made a game of it," said Shue. "That stretch hurt us, but I'm pleased with the way we were able to come back tonight."
Cummings was pleased with his effort, too, although he bristled when someone suggested he was a streak shooter.
"When I shoot, I always expect the shot to fall," he snapped. "I'm not a streak shooter. Consistency is my goal. I don't want to be a streak anything. I just won't accept that."
In the Washington locker room, no one was willing to argue the point. Hawks 116, Cavaliers 99
In Atlanta, Dominique Wilkins scored 26 points to lead six Hawks in double figures.
Cleveland, loser of five of its last six, made a 21-0 run in the third period on the scoring of Roy Hinson and World B. Free to cut Atlanta's margin to 78-74 with 3:06 left in the period. Lakers 112, Clippers 96
In Inglewood, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 26 points and Byron Scott had 23 to lead the Lakers.
The Lakers' Magic Johnson missed the game because of a bruised right knee suffered in a collision with Larry Nance of the Phoenix Suns Tuesday night and Kurt Rambis was out with a sprained left ankle.
Kurt Nimphius led the Clippers with 21 points.