Jeff Ruland's return gave the Washington Bullets more than just some extra points, rebounds and assists Thursday night against the Philadelphia 76ers. It also gave the team, which was facing elimination, an emotional lift.
Heading into Sunday's deciding game in the best-of-five NBA first-round playoff series, the 76ers were hoping for a similar boost from Moses Malone. But the all-star center's eye injury will sideline him for the rest of the NBA playoffs, club officials announced late yesterday.
The 76ers said Dr. Jack Jeffers, an opthalmologist, examined Malone and decided the fractured orbital bone of the right eye that Malone suffered March 28 in a game against Milwaukee is not healing well enough for him to play.
Jeffers said Malone's eye could not withstand the ordinary bumps of NBA play and playing now likely would do more damage. He said Malone should not be allowed to risk the possibility of another accident to the eye until June or July, said team spokesman Harvey Pollack, who said the 76ers would abide by the recommendation.
"Bulk, size and quality experience . . . a guy who knows what playoff basketball is about," Philadelphia Coach Matt Guokas said of Ruland, but the words also describe what the 76ers would have gained from the return of Malone, who had missed the 76ers' final seven regular season games and the first four games of the series against Washington.
After the Bullets' 116-111 victory Thursday, the word was that the 10-year veteran was going to practice today with his teammates for the first time since being injured. However, that all changed yesterday.
Still, 76ers forward Charles Barkley said the absence of Malone should not have a negative effect. "We've played without him long enough for that not to affect us," said Barkley, averaging 22 points and 18 rebounds in the series.
Before learning Malone would be out, the Bullets were more intent on enjoying their victory in Game 4 Thursday, particularly since it marked the successful return of Ruland. After spending part of yesterday afternoon cleaning his pool, he planned to rest at his home and call it a day, an idea he found infinitely preferable to calling it a season.
The Bullets and their center/forward had faced that prospect before Game 4 Thursday. However, with Ruland coming back from March 31 arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and playing a major role, Washington won to force a fifth game Sunday at 3:30 p.m. at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.
"The best thing of all about coming back was the final product," Ruland said yesterday. "Being able to return was very rewarding, very much worth it. It'll be even better after Sunday."
Ruland contributed 13 points, seven rebounds and five assists in 26 minutes, providing some much-needed muscle under the basket.
Ruland's performance led to a Bullets victory that was merely the latest in what has been a series of trumps and counter-trumps. Washington won Game 1 by scoring 18 consecutive points in the final 3:49. Philadelphia recovered by taking Games 2 and 3 right out of the Bullets' hands.
Thought by some to be crushed and demoralized, Washington responded with its strongest physical effort of the set in Game 4.
"We kinda let two get away from us. They let one get away from them," said Washington Coach Kevin Loughery. "So here we are."
But what does that portend for Game 5? "There's just no momentum either way now," said 76ers guard Maurice Cheeks. "Sunday's just gonna be a hard-fought game."
Nowhere more so than inside, where in Game 4 -- for the first time in the series -- the Bullets came away with a rebounding advantage: 44-40. In the opening three games, Washington was outrebounded, 166-106.
"It's gonna come down to rebounding," said Bullets guard Jeff Malone. "We've gotta keep it close. Some of the games have been ridiculous."
There's no way to determine how much Ruland's return also helped Malone, who had been in a shooting slump. Before Thursday's game, Malone, a 48 percent shooter during the regular season, had been shooting less than 40 percent during the series. In Game 4, however, he scored a career playoff-high 32 points, going 12 for 24 from the field.
"I can't believe how bad I was shooting. I missed layups, I missed jumpers, everything," he said. "I had started to press and that made it worse. I felt good on Thursday , though. I told Bullets reserve Darren Daye to watch me, and he said I was jerking my wrist instead of following through like I normally do. That happens when I'm forcing things, trying to guide every shot into the basket."
At the least, Ruland's return made that unnecessary. As an added bonus, there now is a chance for all the Bullets to improve their performance even further Sunday.
WWDC-1260, which broadcast Bullets games from 1972-1975, will return as the team's flagship station next season. WTOP-1500 has been the Bullets' station since 1975. Bullets Vice President Garnett Slatton said WWDC's willingness to create a Bullets network was one of "the major reasons" behind the change.