Despite the possible loss of center/forward Jeff Ruland for the remainder of the season, despite an overwhelming performance by the Philadelphia 76ers' Charles Barkley and, yes, despite themselves, the Washington Bullets somehow managed to come away from Capital Centre last night with a 100-93 victory.
Ruland, who has endured an injury-filled season, said last night he expects to undergo arthroscopic surgery to repair damage in his left knee. If the five-year veteran has surgery, it probably will end the season for him and severely damage the team's chances in the upcoming playoffs.
"I'll probably have to have it done soon. I really can't say more than that about it," said Ruland before the game.
Escape would not be too strong a word to describe how Washington managed to improve its record to 34-38, to close within a game of the third-place New Jersey Nets in the NBA's Atlantic Division and come within one victory of clinching a playoff berth.
What else could sum up a victory in which the team shot 42 percent from the field, including a nearly seven-minute second-half stretch without a field goal?
Given the presence of Barkley, that surely should have spelled defeat. The second-year power forward merely scored a career-high 36 points and grabbed 24 rebounds, also a career high. But while he was the dominant individual, it was Washington that came out ahead.
It helped that the 76ers suffered through a 35 percent night from the floor, with their own five-minute spell without a basket -- in the fourth quarter. By that time, the Bullets were well on their way to correcting their shooting maladies. Washington started the final 12 minutes two for 10 from the floor but hit eight of its last 12 shots to pull out the victory.
Guard Jeff Malone scored 29 points for Washington, including four in the last two minutes. However, it was Cliff Robinson who came up biggest, scoring 28 points to accompany 13 rebounds. The Bullets also got 21 points and nine assists from guard Gus Williams in putting together a complete, four-quarter effort for the first time in Kevin Loughery's three-game reign as coach.
"I haven't seen anything I haven't liked thus far," said Loughery, who replaced fired Gene Shue last week. "The team is really working hard. When you work hard you get results, and victories can only breed confidence."
For a time it seemed as if Washington's confidence would take a tumble. For the third consecutive game the Bullets led at halftime and looked good doing so, but as in last Saturday's 111-110 victory over Indiana, Washington faltered in the third period, making but eight of 21 shots from the field and going without a basket in the final 4:10. Even after the poor start in the fourth quarter, the Bullets trailed by only a point, 77-76, with eight minutes to play.
"We handled the ball terribly and our shot selection at the end was horrible," said 76ers Coach Matt Guokas. "We played purposeless basketball."
That assessment didn't include Barkley, who, whether powering the ball through the hoop on thunderous slam dunks or winking at fans in the stands, was the most immovable object and irresistible force in the game.
"I feel like I've been out working in the woods all night," said Washington forward Charles Jones.
"I'm tryin' to play as well as I can the whole time I'm out there," said Barkley. "I'm out there to win more than anything else. If you don't win, you lose. That's it. We're not playing horseshoes."
Jones finished with five personal fouls, the same number as Robinson, who also drew the unenviable assignment of trying to stop Barkley.
"He was just a monster under the boards tonight," said Robinson. "Some of the things he did made me want to come back to the other end and do the same thing. He was so dominant but we couldn't let one man beat us."
Indeed, that didn't happen, mainly because in those final eight minutes Washington rediscovered its fast break and took control of the game, including a 16-10 run in the last four minutes. Robinson scored seven of those points and highlighted the stretch run by making a steal and driving the length of the court for a slam dunk, despite being fouled.
"That's the instinct to fast break, which is what you look for," said Loughery. "You're not gonna get that all the time but you have to instill it in their minds, even on defense. It's still not natural, but it will come."
What's questionable is whether Ruland will be able to join in on the fun.
"We're running the ball and getting lots of easy baskets and playing good defense," said center Manute Bol. "We just need Jeff Ruland back."
Ruland, who had missed 13 of the Bullets' previous 15 games because of what was diagnosed as a strained left knee, experienced swelling and discomfort in the joint after playing in Washington's 111-110 victory over the Indiana Pacers last Saturday.
"There was no reason why it should have swelled up like it did unless there was something wrong," he said. "I didn't really get it banged or anything."
The Bullets had Sunday off, but when the swelling remained, Ruland saw team doctor Carl MacCartee. The two met again before last night's game.
Ruland left Capital Centre immediately after the game. However, McCartee wasn't ready to proclaim the veteran lost for the season.
"Nothing has been determined definitely yet," he said. "That probably won't come for the next two days, after we get a couple of other opinions."
Said Loughery: "It's not only a big disappointment not having Jeff, but it's also tough because you can't judge the other players on the team when he's in the lineup, which is something you strive to do."
Last night, the 76ers also played without their center, Moses Malone, who was out with a sore foot. "The difference," said Loughery, "is that Moses will be back tomorrow."