Maybe it was the absence -- again -- of Jeff Ruland. Maybe it was two games in two nights in two cities. Or maybe it was just another February night in the NBA.
Whatever the problem, the Washington Bullets came into Market Square Arena tonight and did a pratfall, making the lowly Indiana Pacers look like world beaters. The final score before 9,365 fans was 100-87, but it wasn't really even that close as Washington's record dropped to 27-31. The Pacers, struggling to reach the playoffs that almost no one misses, are 20-38, and 3-0 against the Bullets.
Ruland had played in Monday's victory over the New Jersey Nets but jammed a knee early in the game going to the basket for a shot. "The doctor told me last night it was just a jam, but it swelled up on me today," Ruland said. "To say this is frustrating is an understatement. I won't know how long I'll be out until I see the doctor again."
He will do that Wednesday when the Bullets return home. In addition to the swelling on his left knee, Ruland still has a sore right ankle. "I don't even want to think how long it might be," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "I've heard, 'Couple of games,' too many times to say it again.
"This was just another frustrating night. It's been this way all year. Jeff is in, Jeff is out. We can't get anything going. With him, we aren't a very good offensive team. Without him, well, you saw."
What everyone saw was Gus Williams hitting the first shot of the game for a 2-0 Washington lead. During the next 7:15, the Bullets took 14 shots. They made exactly one. During that stretch the Pacers outscored them 20-2, led by the man who benefited most from Ruland's absence, Herb Williams. The burly Williams, despite being victimized by several of Manute Bol's 10 blocks, ended the night with 24 points and 14 rebounds.
"With Jeff out they lose a lot of offense, not only because of his points but because of what he sets the other guys up to do," said Indiana center Steve Stipanovich. "When we heard he wasn't playing we just figured Gus Williams and Jeff Malone would pick them up."
They didn't. In fact, no one did. After their two-for-15 start, the Bullets never got their offense going. By the time the long night was over they were 31 for 86 -- 36 percent. Gus Williams, who played only 23 minutes, was four for 11, Malone five for 14, Cliff Robinson six for 19. Darren Daye led the scoring with a modest 15 points.
Still, Indiana is such an inconsistent team that the Bullets were able to get back into the game. They cut the 20-4 deficit to 52-48 by halftime, and when Gus Williams knocked in a three-point shot with 7:15 left in the third quarter it was 58-56 and Indiana looked poised for one of its customary second-half collapses.
Not tonight. "You just never had the feeling that they were ready to run past us," said the Pacers' Wayman Tisdale. "They looked kind of tired."
Tired or not, the Bullets went back into the deep freeze the rest of the third quarter, managing four points during the last 7:15 of the quarter. They were outscored during that stretch, 21-4, with Georgetown rookie Bill Martin coming off the bench to score nine points during the run.
"We've just had trouble with these guys," said the Bullets' Tom McMillen, who started in place of Ruland but played only nine minutes on his still tender ankle. "They seem to run their passing game well against us and tonight they played good defense."
Shue was more inclined to think it was his team's deficiencies than anything special the Pacers did. "We've played them three times and I don't think we've shot better than about 35 percent in any of the games," he said. "The first time we only had eight guys who could play, the second time we didn't have Jeff Malone , and tonight we didn't have Ruland."
Whatever the reasons, it adds up to an 0-3 record against one of the worst teams in the league. In the fourth quarter, the Bullets never got the deficit to a single digit, even against a team that is notorious for last-quarter collapses. After Malone's steal and basket cut the margin to 88-77, the Pacers scored the next six points -- four by Vern Fleming, the last two on a Stipanovich jumper -- and it was over.
Fleming finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds, Clint Richardson had 14, Ron Anderson 13 and Stipanovich 12. Only one Washington player hit half his shots. That was Kevin McKenna, who made the last basket of the night to finish four for seven.
It was that kind of evening. No Ruland. No offense. No way to win. The playoffs are just seven weeks away.
"It's been a tough year," Shue said. "A tough year."