A well-conceived and, for the most part, well-executed game plan by the Washington Bullets was wasted tonight at the Mecca because of a 17-1 fourth-quarter spree by the Milwaukee Bucks. When the smoke had cleared, the Central Division leaders had won their 10th straight NBA game, 102-84.
The Bucks improved their record to 42-18. Washington is 28-32 and 2 1/2 games behind the New Jersey Nets for the sixth Eastern Conference spot in the playoffs.
The Bullets have struggled all season to find a way to score against the Bucks, who have limited their opponents to 45 percent shooting from the field, the best mark in the NBA.
Even playing without center/forward Jeff Ruland and playing with a pair of under-the-weather players, Cliff Robinson and Manute Bol, Washington came close to hitting upon a workable formula. That consisted of a number of easy, fast break baskets and some long-range shooting to stretch out the defense.
The Bullets hit six three-point field goals. The last, by Leon Wood, came with 9:58 to play in the game and gave Washington a 75-73 lead.
A short time later, though, the bottom fell out for Washington. A three-point play by Sidney Moncrief, who scored a game-high 21 points, put the Bucks up by 78-77 with 9:16 left. Those were the first of nine straight points for Milwaukee, a streak that was quelled at 5:43 by a free throw by Robinson, who scored a team-high 20 points.
The Bucks' lead grew to 92-78 before the Bullets scored again on Dan Roundfield's layup with 3:36 left. A minute and a half later, it was 18 points, 98-80, and the game effectively was over.
"We did all the things in the fourth quarter that we wanted to do all night but just weren't able to," said Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson. "They're a hard team for us to play. We haven't figured out Manute Bol yet."
Bol, suffering from a touch of stomach flu as well as from a sprained thumb, almost scratched himself from the starting lineup just before the start of the game. Playing 28 minutes, the 7-foot-7 rookie center blocked three shots, almost three fewer than his league-leading average.
But negating Bol was only one aspect of a game that at times resembled a chess match between grand masters. There were the Bullets trying to slow down the pace and the Bucks attempting to pick it up with defensive pressure. There was Milwaukee trapping almost as soon as Washington crossed midcourt and the Bullets subsequently scrambling to rotate the ball to the open man.
That both squads were successful in their ploys was displayed by the 67-67 score at the end of three quarters. Washington Coach Gene Shue felt that because of the low score, his team perhaps had the better of things.
"The pace was definitely in our favor. Everything was going the way we wanted them to," he said. "Then we let them get a quick streak, and what was a close game got away from us."
Said Moncrief: "When we made our run in the fourth quarter, we started to extend our defense further out onto the court. You could feel the momentum turn, and when it turns on a team that's playing at a slow pace, like the Bullets were tonight, it's very difficult for them to speed up their tempo and play at our level."
With the remaining regular-season days dwindling, it's difficult to say what sort of level the Bullets could hope to aspire to, especially with the on-again, off-again nature of Ruland's injuries. Sunday's rematch with the Bucks becomes important in that it will allow Washington to try to find a way to overcome Milwaukee's intricate defenses.
"We knew they'd double-team, and they did a good job with it, particularly in the second half," said Shue. "Still, we were able to counter it for the most part. There are always holes in a defense. We'll have to keep trying to do the things to beat it."
By the same token, Milwaukee isn't going to be content to remain at status quo.
"We still have a lot of thinking to do," said Nelson. "We have to find different ways to attack them, to make them pay the price, just as they do us. At this stage of the season, we would rather play them with Ruland so that we could get a better feel for what they do." Celtics 124, Clippers 108
Boston won its 16th straight at home as Kevin McHale and Robert Parish scored 26 points each against Los Angeles. The Clippers were led by Marques Johnson with 24 points and White with 19. 76ers 123, Mavericks 120
Julius Erving hit a three-point shot from halfcourt at the buzzer to lead visiting Philadelphia over Dallas.
Philadelphia's Charles Barkley led all scorers with a career-high 35 points and Mark Aguirre had 34 for Dallas. Nets 113, Spurs 110
Otis Birdsong scored eight of his 28 points in the fourth quarter and Buck Williams had 20 points and 13 rebounds to lead New Jersey over San Antonio in East Rutherford, N.J. Pistons 115, Hawks 103
Isiah Thomas scored 30 points and Bill Laimbeer 21 in Pontiac, Mich., as Detroit defeated Atlanta for a team-record 10th straight victory.
Dominique Wilkins scored a game-high 35 points for Atlanta. Bulls 116, Cavaliers 96
George Gervin scored 26 points, including 11 in the third quarter, and Chicago's defense held World B. Free to 12 points in a victory over visiting Cleveland. Lakers 115, Suns 103
Michael Cooper scored 20 points, including five three-point field goals, helping Los Angeles beat visiting Phoenix.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the Lakers with 24 points, and Walter Davis had 30 points for Phoenix. Kings 121, Pacers 100
Reggie Theus scored 27 points to lead Sacramento over visiting Indiana. Herb Williams scored 25 for the Pacers.