Tonight at Madison Square Garden the Washington Bullets discovered how painful being short-handed can be, falling, 119-83, to the New York Knicks before 12,161.
Already missing center/forward Jeff Ruland, out with a sore left knee, Washington discovered earlier today that all-star guard Jeff Malone also would be absent because of a stomach virus. By game's end, all of the Bullets were feeling sickly.
"This was one of those no-comment games," commented forward Cliff Robinson. "There's just nothing you could say about it that -- there's just nothing to say."
From the New York point of view there were more than a few deafening facts. The victory was the Knicks' biggest of the season, and it ended a string of four straight losses and 11 in their last 12 games. The Knicks' field goal percentage of 68.5 was a record against the Bullets; the previous record, also by the Knicks in 1975, was 65.5.
New York (20-41) has had more than its share of injuries this season; all-star forward Bernard King and center Bill Cartwright being early casualties. But for this game, non-household names like Chris McNealy and Darrell Walker became the toast of the town.
McNealy, a forward picked up from the CBA, set a franchise record for steals in a game with eight and also had 12 points and 10 rebounds. Walker, a guard whose field goal percentage was 42 entering the game, hit six of nine shots en route to 16 points.
Patrick Ewing led New York with 18 points, one of seven members of the team in double figures. Lost amidst the squalor was Washington forward Darren Daye's 22 points, a career high.
"It would have been very hard for us to win tonight, no matter what," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "Adding up the average points before the game, there just wasn't a lot there. Then the Knicks played an absolutely great game. It would be hard to think they could play any better than that."
Particularly on defense, where New York's swarming, trapping attack took the Bullets right out of any semblance of a set offense. Placed in a scrambling situation, all too often the ball wound up in the hands of the wrong man in the wrong place and at the wrong time.
On many occasions, Washington was reduced to three-point field goal attempts. If they went awry, as eight out of 11 did, the Knicks, who enjoyed a 39-30 advantage in rebounds, were off and running, beating their woefully out-of-position opposition up and down the court.
Despite 11 turnovers by halftime, and 66 percent shooting by New York, the Bullets were down by only 55-50 and Shue said: "I was feeling pretty good." That changed almost immediately, according to the coach, because in the second half: "They continued to play great and our game went right to the bottom."
The Bullets trailed, 59-52, with 10:54 remaining in the third quarter; by the end of the period, New York's lead had ballooned to 19 points, 86-67. In that span, the Bullets turned over the ball seven times and missed most of their 19 total field goal attempts of the quarter, harried attempts against the trap being just as effective as steals for New York.
"It's nice to see the trap like it used to be played," said New York Coach Hubie Brown. "The players did a magnificent job at the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth. Some nights the press is good early, some nights it doesn't catch up at all."
Down by 92-73 with 7:57 to play, Shue said he considered trying to make some sort of last stand. Sixteen seconds later, though, Ernie Grunfeld hit a three-point field goal. "At that point, I just said, 'The hell with it,' " said Shue.
That seemed like sound judgment. After Grunfeld's basket, the Knicks scored the next nine points, Walker and McNealy combining for eight of them. By that time, only thoughts of Thursday night's Capital Centre rematch were left to placate Washington.
However, immediately after the game, the Bullets seemed too shellshocked to take much solace from their chance for retribution.
"I'd like to get a win," said Robinson, "but I don't know if I want to play them again."