When an NBA team is playing well, the fact that there always is another game just around the corner seems to be a blessing. Conversely, when a team slumps, the regular season's nightly grind can be torturous.
Winners of nine of 13 games since Wes Unseld was named coach almost one month ago, the Washington Bullets appear to be better than they were when they opened the season 8-19. However, they have been far from perfect.
Foremost among the Bullets' flaws has been a tendency to commit mistakes, both mentally and physically. That has cost them dearly in each of their four losses under Unseld, especially in the latest -- a 128-126 overtime decision to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday.
In that game, Washington led, 111-100, with two minutes to play in regulation, but turned over the ball three times and failed to work the clock. Now, despite their overall success under Unseld, some players are uncertain how long it will take to recover.
"A game like that could stick with us a long time," one player said yesterday. "We should have won it and we needed it because of the schedule."
The Bullets have an almost immediate opportunity to atone, facing the Knicks tonight in New York. The Knicks are 14-28, four games behind Washington in the Atlantic Division standings. However, New York has won its last four games at Madison Square Garden and eight of its last 10.
The only other time the Bullets played there this season, Dec. 8, they were routed, 116-92. That was before Unseld replaced Kevin Loughery. Since then, if nothing else, the Bullets have shown they're willing to play hard every night. What they haven't shown is that they're good enough to play through their mistakes. This leaves Unseld and assistant Bill Blair wondering about the Bullets' ability to win close games, such as Saturday's or their previous defeat, a 106-100 loss to Boston on Jan. 27.
"This team has to play hard every night, that's the only way we'll win," Unseld said. "We also have to be able to withstand pressure."
By that, Unseld means trapping defenses like those employed by the Knicks. The Bullets defeated New York, 104-90, at Capital Centre on Jan. 28, but not before struggling against the Knicks' press for three quarters. The loss to Cleveland last Saturday also was hastened by Washington's inability to handle the Cavaliers' pressure on the ball.
In the last meeting against the Knicks, said center Moses Malone, "we did too much dribbling. Instead of moving the ball by passing it around their people, we dribbled it right to them."