Tonight at Market Square Arena, the Washington Bullets got some great individual athletic efforts and a strong inside presence with the return of center Jeff Ruland. But they neglected to tend to some of the other basics of basketball and had their four-game NBA winning streak ended with a 92-88 loss to the Indiana Pacers.
One of the areas that went amiss for the Bullets was scoring, and the problem came at a most inopportune time. Washington scored a mere 13 points in the final quarter, making but three shots from the field in the last eight minutes.
"We just couldn't get anything going at all offensively," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue, who called the absence of guard Jeff Malone -- at home with the flu -- "the most important factor in the game."
For the record, it was a horrendous four-for-19 shooting stretch in the fourth quarter that dropped the Bullets to 23-22 on the season and negated what -- for a time at least -- seemed to be a triumphant return by Ruland.
Coming back after missing 22 games with a fractured right ankle, the veteran center -- who had not played since Dec. 11 -- scored 18 points and had nine rebounds.
"The ankle feels sore now, but it was great to play again," Ruland said of his 26-minute stint. "I'm just sorry that we lost the game."
Gus Williams matched Ruland with 18 points for the Bullets and fellow guard Leon Wood had 16 in a reserve role.
Herb Williams, who scored a career-high 38 points in the only other meeting of the season between the teams, was once again a thorn in the Bullets' side, scoring 25 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Guard Vern Fleming had 16 for Indiana (13-32).
But that wasn't as important as the Bullets' own lack of scoring. "We certainly had our chances," said Shue, but rarely was his team able to do anything with them. A pair of tremendous, almost circus-like shots by Williams and Wood after other plays had broken down looked great, but they served only to underscore the troubles Washington was having with its set offense.
The Bullets made only 31 of 84 field goal attempts in the game, an anemic 37 percent. The worst offender was Cliff Robinson, who was four for 19, but he was by no means alone in an inability to find the hoop.
"Nobody was hitting tonight," he said. "I thought we got good shots. Everyone worked hard and we hustled the ball around, but it just wouldn't go into the basket. Then they're always pushing the ball down offensively, so it seemed like we were always playing defense."
That wasn't such a bad thing. The Bullets blocked nine shots, four by Manute Bol, and constantly were able to thwart the Pacers. In particular, Dudley Bradley and Charles Jones played well on the defensive end.
"After awhile you don't even pay any attention to what's happening (offensively)," said Bradley. "No matter how many times they come down you just know that you're gonna stop 'em. It just becomes a rhythm."
Early in the game, Shue even rewarded Bol for his defense, calling a play that had the 7-foot-7 center take a long jumper -- which, like most of the other attempts by the Bullets, missed the mark.
"You do have to have fun in this game, too," explained Shue. "(Earlier in the season) I made a bet with Manute that if he ever blocked 15 shots in a game, I'd put in a play for him."
Bol swatted away that exact number in a 111-103 victory over Atlanta last Saturday and reminded the coach of their wager. Given the course of events tonight, the gambit was as good as any other.
Indiana was really no great shakes in the final period either, hitting but five of 20 shots. The most crucial one came with 6:46 remaining in what was an 81-81 game.
Trying to get the ball up the floor, the Pacers' Clark Kellogg was pressured greatly in the backcourt by Robinson, who twice deflected passes only to have them land right back in Kellogg's hands.
Finally crossing midcourt, Kellogg threw a blind pass to center Steve Stipanovich, who muscled the ball through the hoop with a dunk, despite the fact that Bol had a hand on the attempt.
The Bullets would score only three field goals for the remainder of the game, one when Wood was credited with a basket after a goaltending call against Williams. Wood added another almost meaningless layup with eight seconds to play.
The only other field goal was a hook shot from Ruland, who felt that the defeat was an aberration that wouldn't be repeated.
"I saw the potential that we have out there. This was just a tough game," he said. "Then again, we've always got our ace in the hole (Malone). I hope he's at home eating some chicken soup and getting ready for the next game."
That would be against the Boston Celtics Friday night at Capital Centre. With a record of 33-8, the Celtics are a far cry from the troubled Pacers.