It seems that the Washington Bullets and the fans at Capital Centre have fallen into an ever-so familiar pattern. The routine starts shortly before gametime, when the crowd rises to give Coach Wes Unseld an ovation when he walks onto the floor. Then, several hours later, the gesture is repeated, usually after the team has thrashed the opposition.
Yesterday the scene was played for the sixth straight time, the Bullets manhandling the Philadelphia 76ers, 131-99, before 13,321. The margin of victory equaled the Bullets' season-high against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 9.
That was one week after Unseld succeeded Kevin Loughery as coach. Since his appointment, the Bullets have won seven of nine games, improving their record from 8-19 to 15-21. Whereas it once appeared they had no hope to make the playoffs, they are only two games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers for the eighth and last Eastern Conference postseason spot and 2 1/2 games behind the 76ers for second place in the Atlantic Division.
The surge has come largely at home. The Bullets were 6-9 at Capital Centre when Unseld took over. Since then they've won six straight here. In his first game as coach, they struggled to defeat the New Jersey Nets, 101-97. In the last five games they've won by an average of almost 27 points. They will get a chance at victory number seven tonight against the 76ers. The 7:30 p.m. game will make up the Nov. 11 game that was snowed out.
"I think we're playing good, steady basketball," said Unseld after yesterday's victory. "I don't think there's any doubt at all that the players get up for playing at home; it hadn't been fun being around this group all year, I think they're having fun now for a change."
The Bullets were paced by forward Bernard King with 25 points. He was one of six Bullets in double figures, with all 12 players scoring. The team nearly broke the franchise record for field goal accuracy, but some misses in the waning minutes dropped the percentage to a paltry 63 percent, one point less than the all-time high.
"There's no explanation for that; they can't be that good and we can't be that bad," said guard Maurice Cheeks, who led Philadelphia with 20 points, one more than forward Charles Barkley. "It's like they're renewed or something. They got a new coach but it's like they've got new blood."
Indeed, there appears to have been some sort of roster-wide transfusion. King, Jeff Malone (20 points) and Moses Malone (17 points), to name just three, have elevated their games.
King made 10 of 14 shots from the field on Sunday; in his last 19 games he's shot nearly 60 percent. Jeff Malone had averaged nearly 21 points in his last eight games and Moses Malone has averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds in his last nine games.
Forward Terry Catledge has been quietly effective on both the offensive and defensive ends, which has helped provide the Bullets with a nice foundation, but in each game one of the teams' supporting cast has risen to the forefront.
In last Friday's 115-91 victory over Golden State, 7-foot-7 reserve Manute Bol had 11 rebounds and blocked 10 shots. On Sunday, the other end of the spectrum was served by 5-3 point guard Tyrone Bogues, who riddled and befuddled the 76ers to the tune of 13 points and eight assists. He was credited with four steals but that appeared to be at least 50 percent short of reality.
He made his big move during the second period yesterday. Washington led by 31-28 after the first 12 minutes; when he departed with just over four minutes left in the half, the Bullets were up 48-38 and on their way to a 59-45 halftime lead. During those eight minutes, Bogues scored but four points with two assists and two steals, but his court presence altered the game immeasurably.
"Everyone's doing the job now," he said. "For me, I thought it would just be a matter of time. It's still a long season, I just want to try and stay as consistent as possible."
According to Unseld, the game turned in the third quarter, when the Bullets outscored Philadelphia, 36-24, to pull away. That period did give him a chance to strut his stuff. In the first half, the 76ers stayed within range against a second unit that had trouble scoring.
That changed in the third quarter when Unseld deftly kept one of his big guns, either King, or one of the Malones, in the game with four reserves. Late in the period, the visitors cut their deficit to 18 on former Georgetown star David Wingate' jumper. The Bullets took a timeout and after a few words from Unseld, went off on a 12-4 run to end the quarter.
That was the ball game. King was the only starter to play in the fourth quarter, and he left with almost nine minutes left. For the second straight game, Bol's services weren't needed at the close, Charles Jones replacing him a minute after King's departure. Darrell Walker got a chance to work some of the kinks from the right ankle he hurt a month ago, a time which, for the Bullets, now seems light years ago.