LANDOVER -- A month ago, when the Washington Bullets were saddled with a 7-15 record, mentioning the P word (playoffs) would have produced uproarious laughter at the Capital Centre.
"It's not a joking matter anymore," team captain Darrell Walker said last night after the surging Bullets defeated the Los Angeles Clippers, 122-110, to climb into a third-place tie with the New York Knicks in the Atlantic Division race.
"It's too long to go in the season to start talking playoffs," Walker said, "but at least teams have to take us seriously now."
With Bernard King reclaiming the league scoring lead (31.0) with 45 points and Harvey Grant adding a career-high 34 points, the Bullets (14-18) won for the seventh time in the past 10 games.
The Clippers (12-24), troubled by trade rumors that have been aggravated by general manager Elgin Baylor's presence on this extended road trip, have lost eight of their past nine. But they made a game of it by using their superior size and the inside power of fast-improving center Benoit Benjamin (24 points, 19 rebounds).
Los Angeles trailed, 57-54, at halftime, but King, hitting shots from every angle, and Grant, posting up and using his delicate jump shot, combined to build an 88-73 lead late in the third quarter. The Clippers, lacking a true floor leader and laden with clone-like forwards, drew no closer than nine (105-96) the rest of the way.
It was the seventh time King had scored 40 or more points this season, hitting 18 of 30 field-goal attempts. He has made the extraordinary seem so ordinary that Bullets coach Wes Unseld admitted surprise when he noted the forward had, indeed, scored 45.
Said Walker, who also played with King during his vintage years with the Knicks: "I don't get excited anymore. I used to in New York. But I know when Bernard catches the ball in certain spots, he's going to score. Only now, with his improved jump shot, he's become more of an inside-outside threat. He's just too tough to guard."
Grant has scored 24 or more in his past four games.
"Harvey has really been something, but it's all due to hard work, " said Unseld. "He's getting better and better in every phase. Tonight, he scored 34, but he also grabbed 10 rebounds, blocked three shots and didn't have a single turnover in 42 minutes. You can't ask for more than that."
But the Bullets are no longer a two-man show. There were again solid contributions from free agent guard Haywoode Workman (13 points, six assists) and reserve guard Ledell Eackles, who scored 13 points and crammed eight of his career- high nine assists into the second quarter.
"It hasn't happened overnight," said King, "but the team chemistry is coming together.
NOTES: F John Williams, sidelined since December 1989 after tearing ligaments in his right knee, will make his first road trip with the Bullets Tuesday when they begin a four-game, five-day Western swing.