Playoff teams -- particularly the more successful ones -- are opportunistic, play defense, have one or more steady performers and can adapt to changing circumstances and styles of play. Yesterday at Capital Centre, the Washington Bullets brought those elements together in a 106-95 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In winning their third straight game, the Bullets improved to 38-41 and tied the New Jersey Nets for third place in the NBA's Atlantic Division. Washington holds the tie-breaker edge over the Nets based on a 4-2 season series advantage.
Yesterday, the Bullets got 32 points from 20 Cleveland turnovers, a byproduct of a defensive effort highlighted by center Manute Bol's nine blocked shots. Bol also tied his career high with 13 rebounds.
In the category of steady performers, there were 33 points and nine rebounds from forward Cliff Robinson, and guard Jeff Malone continued his fine season with 25 points. Guard Gus Williams -- a late but welcome addition to the Bullets' seemingly increasing group of workmanlike players -- scored 21 points and had seven assists in the game played before 5,586.
The most fascinating aspect of the game, however, may have been the last category on the postseason checklist, adaptability. After beating New Jersey and Atlanta -- two running teams -- in their previous two games, the Bullets found themselves in a grind-it-out affair with the Cavaliers (28-50) in the early going.
"It was the kind of game that you really worry about," said Washington Coach Kevin Loughery. "I didn't like the tempo for the first 15 or 16 minutes. They've got big people who can shoot and you have to pick up the pace and keep them moving. We weren't doing that at first. I know it may sound strange but we wanted to run the ball."
Because the Bullets weren't running, players such as Roy Hinson and Melvin Turpin became formidable. In taking a 26-24 lead after the first quarter and trailing only 59-53 at halftime, the Cavaliers were very much in the game. Hinson, Cleveland's high scorer with 24 points, had half of them at intermission. Turpin, who would finish with 12 points, had all of them in the first half.
Turpin's poor second half might be the truest indication of what transpired in the last 24 minutes. With 10 minutes left in the third quarter the score was 63-56, Washington. By the start of the fourth it was 84-69, and the Bullets moved from the furious fast break into cruise control, leading by 17 points in the fourth quarter and never allowing Cleveland nearer than 11.
According to Cavaliers Coach Gene Littles, the major difference in the third-quarter spurt, the game and the Bullets in general, was Williams, who scored all nine of his third-quarter points during the run.
"The thing is that now Gus is being allowed to get involved in the offense," said Littles. "Just having him bring the ball up and try to set everyone else up isn't as effective. Now, for example, you can't double-team on Malone because you know that Gus is looking to take his shot and is hitting it."
But what about Robinson, who, except for Malone, is the team's most consistent player? Yesterday's game was just part of a 56-game stretch in which Robinson has averaged 20 points and nine rebounds.
"I don't think it's anything that has happened overnight," he said. "I've had good games throughout the season, but it always seems to show more when you're winning."
The thing that Loughery says pleases him most about Robinson is his defense, which, in turn, pleases Robinson. "I'm trying to concentrate on it more. I think the whole team has," he said. "Sometimes on offense you can get into the flow without really thinking about it too much but on defense you always have to come out with a good, solid effort."
The Cavaliers fell into a tie with Chicago for the eighth and last spot in the Eastern Conference. Said Littles: "This was the first time in three games that our guys showed some guts and hung in there . . . even if we don't make the playoffs, I don't want it to be because we didn't play hard."
Although they never were in any real danger of not making the playoffs, the Bullets seemed to be in the same position a little more than two weeks ago. Today they seem capable of doing much more than just showing up for a first-round elimination.
"The guys are starting to learn one another," said Loughery. "They're starting to learn me and I'm starting to learn them. We could still help each other better on offense and play better in certain situations but I'm pleased."