Every once in a while, during the course of the NBA regular season, there comes a game that has added significance. Perhaps the teams are longtime rivals. Maybe one is fighting for a playoff spot. And occasionally one team tries to send an almost psychic message to the other that it is the group in ascendancy.
Such a game takes place tonight at Madison Square Garden, where the Washington Bullets play the New York Knicks. The teams are tied for third place in the Atlantic Division with 19-24 records, and, as things currently stand, they are tied for the seventh playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But the fact that one team will be a game ahead of the other afterward is not the important aspect of the game, especially to former Knick Bernard King.
"I will relish going back as a member of the Washington Bullets, as an all-star," he said. "That will be fun. I don't say that in a negative sense. Only that they obviously didn't feel I could ever come back at this level -- forget this level, come back at the level I played at my first year in Washington. . . . To play in the arena in front of an organization that didn't think it would be possible, it's kind of nice. That I'm looking forward to."
The Bullets have reached a point where they can, with the proper effort, beat most NBA teams at home. The same is not true on the road. Almost every time Washington has had a compelling game away from Capital Centre this season, it has come up short:
The Bullets led Philadelphia by 10 with five minutes left Nov. 16, but scored just one point down the stretch, were tied by a Ron Anderson 30-footer with four seconds left, and lost in overtime.
They played the Lakers and Hawks in close games in December, but lost to both in the fourth quarter.
They overcame a nine-point deficit in Milwaukee Jan. 8, led by one with 1:20 remaining, and had a chance to win the game, but Harvey Grant badly missed a jumper with five seconds left, and the Bullets lost, 99-96.
Monday, they had the Detroit Pistons in a position to lose, but gave up killer baskets to John Long and Joe Dumars in the last two minutes and lost, 87-81.
Now the Bullets have won six road games after winning 11 last season. But the only victory against a team with a winning record was at Golden State. If Washington is going to make the next step, they have to beat a good team on the road.
That, of course, is if you consider the Knicks a good team. New York has everybody wondering about the job security of both General Manager Al Bianchi and Coach John MacLeod with its recent play. On their just-finished West Coast trip, the Knicks put bookend wins around three losses, as Patrick Ewing began to raise his game.
Ewing has scored 30 points or more in five of the last six games to raise his scoring average to 26.7. That goes with 11.4 rebounds and 3.67 blocked shots. He's been one of the few Knicks who has performed consistently, as MacLeod has juggled lineups.
He benched point guard Mark Jackson in favor of free agent John Starks, and, now, veteran Maurice Cheeks. Recently, Trent Tucker, who had been in deep freeze on the bench and was wondering why, has been starting in favor of Gerald Wilkins at off-guard.
And there is still the suspicion that before the Feb. 21 trading deadline, the Knicks will do something to adjust their roster. Jackson, power forward Charles Oakley and Wilkins are frequently mentioned in some combination; going to Minnesota for Tony Campbell, to Los Angeles for Danny Manning or to Indiana for Vern Fleming and LaSalle Thompson.