Twelve times this year, the Boston Celtics have made another team's season by losing. Saturday night it was the Washington Bullets' turn for celebration, defeating the team with the NBA's best record, 110-108, in overtime.
"That's an interesting way of putting it, but I know that tonight they definitely deserved to win," said Celtics Coach K.C. Jones, whose team is 50-12. "They played a great game and hustled the whole way through."
They also have closed ground on the New Jersey Nets in the race for third place in the Atlantic Division. After a 97-87 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Feb. 21, the Bullets were 25-30, four games behind the Nets. Now Washington is 31-33, one game behind New Jersey (33-33), perhaps more the result of the Nets' problems -- an injury to Darryl Dawkins and the travails of guard Micheal Ray Richardson -- than outstanding play on the part of Washington.
The Bullets have won six of their last nine games, but none bigger than Saturday night's. After struggling to split back-to-back games against the New York Knicks, one of the poorest teams in the NBA, the Bullets showed in beating the Celtics that perhaps their improvement in the standings is built on something more than the misfortune of others.
"Hopefully, we can use this to get some momentum and get on a roll going into the playoffs," said guard Gus Williams, who hit the game-winning shot against Boston, a three-point field goal with five seconds to play in overtime.
Besides lending credence to the Bullets' bid for playoff legitimacy, the victory brings into focus some recently preposterous postseason possibilities that now don't seem so farfetched.
As recently as a week ago, there appeared to be no way for the Bullets to escape a first-round matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks, another team against which Washington has problems offensively. Even if the Bullets were to catch and then pass the Nets, that would only bring them up against the Philadelphia 76ers, who eliminated Washington in the first playoff round a year ago.
In the last seven days, though, the Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons have gone on tears. The Hawks have moved within a game, and the Pistons within two games, of the 76ers for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Should the Hawks, say, pass Philadelphia and the Bullets beat out New Jersey, the two would meet in the first round. Such a prospect would no doubt please Washington more than facing either Milwaukee or the 76ers.
"That's one reason why it felt so good to win against Boston," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "The playoff groupings are wide open now. Atlanta and Detroit are pressuring Philly. We're pressuring New Jersey. There's just no telling where we may end up."