There have been times over the course of this NBA season when guard Jeff Malone of the Washington Bullets has sat back and thought about what might have been for his team.
"There are a lot of games that I know we should have won and, when you look back on it, it makes you mad," said Malone, the Bullets' only all-star. "I can think of at least 10 of them."
Included in that total would be the back-to-back losses to the Golden State Warriors and Seattle SuperSonics in the second and third games of the Bullets' just-completed five-game western swing. In each of those games, Washington let double-digit leads slip away late, transforming what would have been a 4-1 trip into a 2-3 one.
The only game the Bullets were truly out of was Tuesday night's 101-90 loss to the Denver Nuggets, and even in that one Washington was able to slash a 23-point deficit to two with just more than seven minutes to play.
"We have to play as a team against teams like Denver," said guard Gus Williams, who played only 14 minutes against the Nuggets, scoring eight points. "We just have to learn to blend our talents together."
Although the regular season stretches for 6 1/2 months, the Bullets have surprisingly little time to blend their talents at this point. They are 25-29 and have 28 games remaining, 15 at home.
In the last two games of the western trip, the combination of Manute Bol at center and Jeff Ruland at power forward was effective, particularly on Monday against the Los Angeles Clippers in Ruland's first game back since reinjuring the ankle he fractured in December.
In the 96-94 victory, the pair dominated the middle on defense. And against the Nuggets, the two were together on the floor when the Bullets made their belated run.
The task facing Coach Gene Shue is to effectively incorporate the team's other elements, game by game and even period by period. At times, Cliff Robinson seems uncomfortable with the small forward position, especially when it takes him away from the basket. Charles Jones can play the position defensively, but his lack of scoring hurts, particularly when Bol is in the lineup with either Williams or Leon Wood, both of whom have slumped lately.
For the most part, Darren Daye played excellently at small forward during the trip, but was overmatched defensively at times under the basket, particularly in the loss to Seattle.
There's also the matter of when, where and how much to use Dan Roundfield in the front court.
Malone was splendid during the trip, scoring 43, 36 and 36 points to carry the team before falling off at the end of the five-game swing. With the slump by Williams and Wood, Shue began using Malone with Kevin McKenna in the back court, generally with good success in the last two games.
Although half of the Bullets' next 10 games are against teams with worse records than theirs, the other five are against Philadelphia, New Jersey, Milwaukee twice and Boston. So far this season, Washington's record against those teams is 4-8.