The last time the Washington Bullets were coming off a tough loss to a good team, about two weeks ago, they laid an egg at home and were beaten soundly by Seattle. Tonight provides another such test, as the Los Angeles Clippers come to town.
The players must find a compelling reason to get excited about playing a team that's fallen apart on the road and just Tuesday broke a seven-game losing streak.
Not only have the Clippers been losing but they're hearing trade talk concerning Danny Manning at every stop on their seven-city swing. And forward Charles Smith is out injured. Capital Centre might be about half full for the 7:30 encounter. There aren't many Clippers lovers or haters around town. The Bullets must be self-motivated.
"We've got good leadership," Bullets Coach Wes Unseld said. "Most of that has to come from within. I'll do my preaching and teaching and crying. But that's very important, because we have a habit of playing to the level of our opponents. We seem to need a motivation to play."
Witness Tuesday night in Milwaukee. The Bullets came as close as anyone to breaking the Bucks' home unbeaten streak -- now 18 -- but fell short at the end in the 99-96 loss.
But consider Unseld encouraged.
"With the things we did in that game, that's almost a win," he said. "I'm coaching for the season, not game to game. I'm looking for what we can build here. You just take a hell of an effort, and what the effort does for you. It allows you to play with the good teams."
"If we can play this way all the time," Darrell Walker said, "we can beat a lot of other teams. No doubt about it. I'm encouraged about it, the way we played. We came in and we had a chance."
Tuesday was a taste of late April basketball, when everyone is focused on the game at hand. Both teams played tough defense in the fourth quarter and earned every basket. For Washington to go down the stretch with Charlotte at home is one thing. But to do it on the road against one of the hotter and better teams in the Eastern Conference is an attention-getter. And it gives the young players an idea of what to expect later.
"I haven't been in playoff-type situations," guard Haywoode Workman said. "We were in this same situation early in the year. Those games are going to help us toward the end of the season, when we get in these types of situations on the road and at home."
The Clippers were doing well for a while, hanging around .500. But Smith has been bothered with injuries of late and out of the lineup. Los Angeles lost to Miami, Orlando and Charlotte during the recent slide. And the rumors continue that Manning and guard Gary Grant are on the block, though the Clippers deny it emphatically.
"It just takes time," Coach Mike Schuler said recently. "The more comfortable they become with each other, the more used they are to playing together, the better they're going to be."
King has moved up to fourth in the voting at forward in the Eastern Conference for the Feb. 10 all-star game in Charlotte. He trails Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins by more than 3,300 votes (56,847 to 53,540) with two weeks to go in the voting. But in the last week, King has passed Scottie Pippen, Kevin McHale, Dennis Rodman, Charles Oakley, Horace Grant and Detlef Schrempf. Charles Barkley (188,945) and Larry Bird (175,265) are secure in the first two spots. . . .
Trainer John Lally will be back with the team tonight after missing three games with flu. In the interim the Bullets were serviced by the opposing team's trainer.