The past two seasons, the Washington Bullets have done some of their best work from among the shadows. Two seasons ago, the team made its push toward respectability during a 5-2 West Coast trip, when highlights like a victory over the Los Angeles Lakers at the Forum were accomplished during the early morning hours back East.
This season, the team's big move was overshadowed by the Washington Redskins' march to the NFL title. Quarterback Doug Williams was frequently in attendance at early season Bullets games, but the last time he ventured out to Capital Centre, the Bullets were getting trounced, 111-100, by the Houston Rockets.
The next day, Kevin Loughery was fired as coach and replaced by assistant Wes Unseld. The Bullets immediately won eight of their next 10 games.
Now that the Super Bowl is over, Unseld and his 17-25 team are likely to be the object of some increased attention. And there is plenty worth noting.
Center Moses Malone has had double figures in both points and rebounds in 15 of his last 18 games and will be starting for the Eastern Conference in Sunday's all-star game. Forward Bernard King was last week's NBA player of the week, Unseld its coach of the month for a 9-4 January record.
Terry Catledge and John Williams have been quietly effective at forward and Jeff Malone has shown signs of overcoming a slow start and barely missed making his third straight all-star appearance.
There are still a number of areas that aren't as flattering. A 107-106 loss to Cleveland on Wednesday marked the fifth time in the last six games that a Bullets game has been decided by six points or fewer. Washington has lost four of those five nailbiters, which has perhaps created more questions than were generated during the team's 8-19 start.
Then, the only question was, "Why is this team so bad?" Now, fans want to know "Why can't the team win close games, can they recover from their poor start and, if so, are the Bullets good enough to make the playoffs?"
"Sometimes I think we're trying to get back to playing the way we were before," assistant coach Bill Blair said yesterday. "We're playing better, no question, but the first six or seven games after Wes came on we were passing, moving the ball better and playing better defense. We're not doing that as well now."
Decidedly less cohesive than teams like Boston (which has beaten Washington four straight times this season), the Bullets need every edge they can get to win. Defense and unselfish ball movement were two of the prime reasons for the team's upswing. But mental lapses have cost them dearly in their close losses.
In a 128-126 overtime loss to Cleveland last Saturday, the Bullets failed to handle a press and lost an 11-point lead in the last two minutes of regulation. In a 106-100 loss at Boston on Jan. 27, it was a stolen pass in the final 30 seconds that probably deprived the team of a game-tying basket.
That pass was thrown by rookie guard Tyrone Bogues but Bernard King, believing that he was alone, failed to meet the basketball, giving the Celtics' Danny Ainge a chance to sneak in behind him for the steal. One of the biggest gaffes of the loss to Cleveland last week was a long pass that Moses Malone threw to Manute Bol. In Washington's offensive scheme, the small forward is the player to inbound the basketball; in this case, Malone made the pass, and Bol's hands made the proposition a risky one at best.
The fact that it's often veteran players making mistakes makes it hard for Unseld and Blair to understand -- and tolerate.
"If we're going to go forward," said Blair, "we can't keep making terrible mental mistakes. For us to win, everyone has to play well. The mistakes have hurt and it's not just rookies who have made them."
In fact, Washington has just one rookie -- Bogues -- on its roster. In the past nine games, he has averaged almost seven assists per game, a number reflective of the Bullets' move to an uptempo game.
However, the coaches have been forced to rely on the 5-foot-4 playmaker more than they'd like -- particularly late in games, when the fast break is virtually eliminated and teams win or lose in the half court. In those situations, Bogues' height has been exploited by opponents like Dennis Johnson, Mark Price and Mark Jackson.
The return of Darrell Walker to the lineup on a regular basis could provide relief. A 6-4 defensive standout, Walker has played just 12 minutes since severely spraining his right ankle on Dec. 19. Even though he came off the injured list on Jan. 22, Walker has been hobbled by the ankle and the Bullets have decided to let him rest until after the all-star break.
"It's just to be sure," Walker said. "I can run and jump now. I'm anxious to get out but I want to be halfway healthy at least. I'm not upset about waiting. The more rest, the better."
Walker's ability to play point guard should give the Bullets a defensive stopper and another option in the closing minutes of games, which will be needed, given the team's schedule for the next month. Washington has home games against New Jersey and Milwaukee on Feb. 9 and 15, the rest of the 12 remaining games in the month are on the road, including another two-week trek out west.
Perhaps, just as last year, the Bullets will catch fire again. If they don't, then their hopes for gaining a playoff berth will be severely damaged, given the high quality of play throughout the Eastern Conference this season.
"Even if we had won two or three of those games, we're looking at 19-23 and that makes it a different story," said Blair. "Now we're in a hole to a degree."