The Indiana Pacers, cellar dwellers of the NBA's Central Division, have a record of 7-20 this season in games against Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit, New Jersey and Chicago, a run of futility that will keep the team out of any postseason activity. For that, the Washington Bullets should be eternally grateful, for despite their lowly status, Indiana was able to beat the playoff-bound Bullets last night for the fifth time in six meetings.
The final score at Capital Centre was 111-104, ending Indiana's nine-game losing streak.
In games against the aforementioned five teams -- all currently holding playoff spots -- Washington sports an impressive 15-10 record, but that obviously doesn't matter to Indiana, which has dominated the Bullets this season. Last night, Indiana had seven players with at least 10 points, led by guard Vern Fleming's 18.
Indiana built a 27-point lead, then reverted to the form that has produced a 26-54 record, third-worst in the league. But Washington's belated run fell short, dropping the team one-half game behind the Nets into fourth place in the Atlantic Division with a 38-42 record.
"Every team has a team that is a difficult matchup for them and obviously this team is it for us," said Bullets Coach Kevin Loughery. "They came out very aggressively and we didn't handle it well. When a team is struggling you have to keep working. Tonight we put our heads down a little and I didn't like that."
Indiana once again barely gave the Bullets a chance to get their heads into the game. Shooting 61 percent in the opening quarter, the Pacers took a 29-20 advantage, then extended it to 62-47 at halftime.
"Every time they play us, they just come out and jump right on us," said Washington guard Jeff Malone, who scored only 10 points. "It's always 10-2 or 18-6; we never get out of the gate early against them. Tonight there was no flow, the fast break wasn't there."
How the fast break can be very much in evidence against a league power like Atlanta, against whom Washington has won four of five games, and then disappear against Indiana, which has lost four of five to the Hawks, is a mystery, according to Pacers forward-center Herb Williams.
"Maybe we match up against the Bullets better than Atlanta does, but they've got a pretty good front line, too," he said. "I think what we try to do is take Cliff Robinson out of the game as much as we can. If he gets going, then they have a strong inside game, and there's always Malone from the outside. So what we do is stop Cliff, either by running or double-teaming him or making him do things he doesn't want to do."
Robinson scored 33 points in the season's first meeting between the squads but has not approached that level since. Last night, he had eight points, taking only five shots.
"They do things like switch and help out a lot but I still think we should beat them," said the forward. "We just weren't as aggressive as we were in the past three or four games."
Last night, Washington had but a brief dalliance with aggression, that coming in the final quarter, when it outscored the Pacers by 29-16. Fourteen of those points came from guard Leon Wood, who led the Bullets with 18 points. Another nine came from Dudley Bradley, who finished with a season-high 17.
Spearheading a 14-2 run, the duo helped bring Washington to within nine, 107-98, with just over three minutes to play.
After a basket by the Pacers, the Bullets then scored six more points to cut the lead to 109-104 with 27 seconds left. Eight seconds after inbounding the ball, the Pacers threw it away, giving the home team an outside chance at a miracle finish, but Washington gave it right back when it was unable to inbound the ball.
Although the Bullets have fallen behind New Jersey for the more favorable sixth Eastern Conference playoff position, the remaining schedule still favors Washington. The Bullets face the Bulls in Chicago on Friday before ending the regular season Sunday against the 76ers. Meanwhile, New Jersey has two games against Boston and one against the Hawks remaining. If Washington and New Jersey tie in the standings, the Bullets will get the higher pl;ayoff seeding because they won the season's series between the two teams.
"We had an advantage in the schedule but we blew that tonight," said Loughery. "What we have to do now is just worry about ourselves. This team has bounced back good from games like this, at least since I've been here. We're going to have to do it again on Friday."