Could it be that the biggest test facing the Washington Bullets between now and the start of the NBA playoffs is a team that is 28 games under .500 and has the third-worst offense in the league?
Besides the Boston Celtics, who went 5-1 against Washington, no team has had greater success against the Bullets this season than the Indiana Pacers, whom Washington will play tonight at Capital Centre.
On Dec. 30, in the teams' first meeting this season, the Central Division cellar-dwellers won their first road game in 43 tries against an Atlantic Division team, beating Washington, 92-88.
That was the first of four consecutive Indiana victories over the Bullets, a streak that was only ended on March 22.
Even in that 111-110 win, the Bullets struggled, blowing a 15-point lead and rallying in the final few minutes.
Washington's problems with Indiana have been the Pacers' motion offense in general and especially Herb Williams, who was named the NBA's player of the week.
NBA teams scout clubs and review film to get a grasp for an opponent's offense, the players' positions and functions in any given play. That often can be confusing in Indiana's case, because the players cut and move away from the ball in unpatterned chaos.
The foremost practitioners of the motion offense in the NBA are the Denver Nuggets, averaging 114.5 points a game. Indiana scores 10 fewer points per game (103.7) than Denver, partly because of the Pacers' inexperience. Because they've been fighting a losing battle to rise in the league standings the past several seasons, Indiana constantly is bringing in young players. Steve Stipanovich, Vern Fleming and Wayman Tisdale -- three of the Pacers' mainstays -- were first-round picks in the last three NBA drafts.
Another first-round choice, Williams has been the main reason the Pacers have been able to dominate the Bullets. The forward/center from Ohio State has averaged 27 points and 12 rebounds against Washington this season.
Washington's only win over Indiana was its first under new Coach Kevin Loughery and, for two reasons, the connection may not be coincidental. The first is that the Bullets, who have won three straight games and are 6-4 under Loughery, have attempted to move to an up-tempo game, something that Loughery's predecessor, Gene Shue, eschewed in general, against the Pacers in particular.
The other reason is that the Bullets are playing more team defense than they did under Shue. Trying to trail your man through a series of screens and picks isn't as crucial -- or necessary -- if you're playing what falls into the gray area surrounding zone defense anyway.
"That's something that has really come along. We're doing a much better job of helping each other out," said Loughery after the Bullets' 106-95 win over Cleveland on Sunday. "Everybody's working harder on that aspect of the game."
At the same time, the fast break is becoming almost second nature, with Washington forcing the action in most cases. "Everyone is aware that that's what we want to do all the time: run the ball instead of turning it on or off depending on whom we play ," said forward Cliff Robinson. "Now, we get the ball, look for Gus Williams and go."
That has proven to be a sound strategy, particularly in the past three games. Williams, playing point guard, has scored 78 points and passed off for 30 assists, a total that indicates that a number of Washington players are sharing the wealth.
That is advantageous for any team, and, in the Bullets' case, particularly for Jeff Malone. Until recently, he was forced to carry the bulk of Washington's offense.
"Now three or four guys are doing it every night and that means teams can't concentrate on just one," Malone said. "If that continues, we're gonna win some games."