Those enamored of symbolism and irony, or those merely appreciative of a good laugh, likely would have enjoyed the Denver Nuggets' 124-109 victory over the Washington Bullets last night before 5,326 at Capital Centre.
Some might have felt that the Bullets' fourth straight defeat was sealed by excellent efforts from two people who played for them last season. Forward Jay Vincent tied his season-high with 33 points, on 15-of-20 shooting from the field, and guard Michael Adams had 12 points, 10 assists and four steals.
According to Vincent, it was no accident the former Bullets played so well against their old teammates.
"I think we both were pretty fired up," he said. "We usually talk to each other a lot since we got traded to the team, but recently we've been talking for hours. Yesterday we kept talking about how we wanted to go in and win. It reminded me of the olden days, when guys would have their game face on for 24 hours; they'd just sit around and not talk to each other."
That's how it was in the Bullets' locker room following last night's game. The players dressed quietly. Efforts like Terry Catledge's (season-high 27 points and nine rebounds), Jeff Malone's (20 points) and Moses Malone's (18 points, 15 rebounds) were forgotten largely because of a porous defense that allowed the Nuggets to hit 56 percent of their field goal attempts.
"We're doing nothing within the game of basketball that would allow us to win," said Jeff Malone. "The game is so hard for us now. We're turning the ball over, we're missing rebounds and free throws. I shot some tonight and it felt like the ball didn't want to leave my hand."
The Bullets (8-18) trailed, 59-52, at halftime. But after the intermission, they played as if resolved to begin the new year by atoning for all their past mistakes. Coach Kevin Loughery started Bernard King at forward and Steve Colter, who was signed to a 10-day contract earlier yesterday, at point guard. And they helped Washington score the first three baskets of the half, making the score 59-58 less than two minutes into the third quarter.
"We had to try to change a little," said Loughery. "We got right back into the game, but then we couldn't stop them."
Denver (17-11) called a timeout and shortly after play resumed, Coach Doug Moe sent Vincent into the contest. He and perennial all-star Alex English (27 points) then combined for 17 points as the Nuggets increased their lead to 93-80 entering the fourth period.
For much of the game, the Bullets fought a losing battle trying to adapt to the Nuggets' free-lance, motion offense. Very rarely calling a set play, Denver makes it difficult for opponents by playing without a true center for long stretches.
With his team losing, 102-89, with 8:08 remaining in the contest, Loughery tried to combine a power game with a trap game, fielding a lineup of Moses Malone, Catledge, King, Tyrone Bogues and Jeff Malone. They brought Washington to within 104-97 with 5:59 to play, but the Bullets got no closer.
"Anytime you win it's great," said Adams. "Of course there was more incentive tonight. You always want to play well against a team that's traded you, but the win is what they'll remember."
When the Bullets selected Bogues with their first pick in last June's draft, it was a foregone conclusion that Adams, one of the Bullets' hardest working players last season, would be traded. Now, he's excelling with the Nuggets while Bogues, who had 11 points and 10 assists last night, is struggling to find playing time with Washington.
Adams said that during a pregame chat with Bogues, he offered his counterpart a bit of encouragement.
"He's a rookie and you have to go through a transitional period, learning the ins and outs of the league," said Adams, a third-year veteran. "I know; I've been going through it since I've been in the league."
The Bullets have an immediate opportunity to change things when they play the Houston Rockets tonight at Capital Centre. In that game, Washington will try to improve on its 5-8 home record. The Bullets and the New Jersey Nets are the only Eastern Conference teams with sub-.500 home marks.
"We just haven't gotten a spark," said Loughery. "Things haven't worked. We're playing good teams but that doesn't matter; you can't lose games at home the way we have."