Apparently fast-break basketball, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, at least in the case of the Washington Bullets.
The Bullets have played two games under new Coach Kevin Loughery, a 112-105 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers Friday and a 111-110 victory over the Indiana Pacers Saturday at Capital Centre. And they seem to be happy about the idea of running the ball, but anyone trying to formulate immediate conclusions about the Bullets -- post-Gene Shue -- is likely to come away confused and wondering if the team's owner, Abe Pollin, did the right thing in getting rid of Shue this late in the season.
Winning one game and losing the next has been the norm for Washington this season, even if Saturday's victory did break a five-game losing streak and was the Bullets' first over Indiana after four previous losses this season.
But much has been made -- mainly by the players -- of Loughery's willingness to allow them to play a running game. Shue had argued that a slow-down game was necessary, given the injuries that have dogged the Bullets this season. Whether that was true, or whether it was that Washington did not have the personnel to fast break (another Shue argument), or whether it was a case of the former coach trying to impose his personality on his players, the Bullets were a non-running team for the better part of two months.
Perhaps that is why there has been such giddiness in the locker room the past four days -- the joy of discovering something that's been missing for a long time. But if that is the case, one has to wonder if the reaction would have been the same if Shue had told the team, "Slowing the ball down has been wrong. From now until the end of the season, we have to run."
"I think that would have made everyone happier," said guard Jeff Malone. "That was a big thing. Everyone wanted to run the ball more."
Saturday's game against Indiana resembled a number of Bullets performances before they put their fast break into the deep freeze.
They looked splendid in the first half, running a picture-perfect break and dominating play, even against an opponent that was hitting 58 percent of its first-half shots. But that has happened before this season, and so has what transpired in the third quarter and most of the fourth -- the team going into a prolonged shooting slump and looking every bit like a group of free-lancers.
So, what's the difference?
"They look like they have a different rhythm now," said Indiana guard Clint Richardson. "They just look more aware of running the ball."
Richardson's coach, George Irvine, said, "I always thought that Gene wanted to run with this team. I think that he wanted to do it more off of the defensive game, though."
That is a valid point, and one of the things that has distinguished Loughery during his brief reign. In both games, particularly against Indiana, the Bullets often forced the action, even to the point of running the ball after opponents' baskets.
That is one of two other differences in the team. Under Shue, unless a missed shot presented a clear-cut advantage, as in a three-on-one break, any motion to hurry the ball up the floor was halted by the sound of a set play being bellowed out. That hasn't been the case under Loughery, but that could be because the new man hasn't had time to install his own offense and may be forced to rely on the Bullets' individual instincts.
The other difference is that Loughery clearly is giving more people a chance to use those instincts than Shue did. Against the Pacers, 10 of the 12 Bullets played at least 11 minutes with the exception of guard Leon Wood, who had six, and forward Tom McMillen, who did not play. McMillen also didn't play against the 76ers. Neither did Kevin McKenna, who sat out with a sore neck.
Perhaps the most impressive performer in both games was Dudley Bradley, who was almost nowhere to be seen in Shue's final days. Over the weekend, the guard excelled, particularly defensively. Against the 76ers he did a creditable job against Charles Barkley, Philadelphia's behemoth power forward.
But it was Irvine who pointed out what probably is the main factor that makes a difference to the Bullets, regardless of who is coaching them.
"Talk about running the ball all you want," Irvine said. "The real difference in that team is having Jeff Ruland back. He makes them so much better."
Ruland, who returned from a strained left knee in time for Loughery's debut, got a scare against Indiana when he experienced some fluid buildup in the knee. After taking yesterday off, the center/forward was hoping to play against Philadelphia tonight at Capital Centre. And he isn't the only one hoping he plays.