Bullets' rebuilding work getting a firm foundation

January 14, 1991|By Alan Goldstein

"Surprised?" said coach Wes Unseld, mulling a reporter's question Saturday night after his surging Washington Bullets had routed the Boston Celtics, the team with the best record in the National Basketball Association, 116-99.

And then breaking into a slight grin, he said, "Yes, I'm surprised to a degree."

Unseld had been asked if the Bullets' upward mobility, eight victories in the past 11 games, had come sooner than anticipated.

In most preseason polls, the rebuilding Bullets were ticketed for the lottery and picked to finish higher than only the Miami Heat in the Atlantic Division.

With the team's most versatile player, forward John Williams, still several weeks away from being reactivated, and shooting guard Ledell Eackles getting into playing shape after missing all of training camp, Unseld was forced to patch and mend the first two months of the season.

Unusual pressure was put on free agents and rookies such as Haywoode Workman and A.J. English, and newly acquired power forward Pervis Ellison, to mature quickly. They suffered growing pains as Unseld experimented with different lineups and the Bullets had a 7-15 record Dec. 15.

Bernard King has carried an inordinate amount of the offense. But, in recent weeks, third-year forward forward Harvey Grant (19.0 ppg) has been almost as effective, and Unseld also has received consistent performances from his aggressive backcourt combination of Workman and Darrell Walker, strong rebounding from Ellison and timely offense from Eackles and English.

"I always knew Bernard could consistently get big numbers for us," said Unseld, "and now I'm 99 and 99/100 percent sure about Harvey because he's been doing it for us night after night."

With the winning has come growing confidence and respect from their rivals. As Celtics coach Chris Ford said: "The Bullets always give us fits. They play with tremendous intensity, but give Unseld credit for that."

Added Celtics center Robert Parish, who was limited four shots and six points in 33 minutes: "They simply beat us on both ends of the court. They just took the game more seriously than we did."

The Bullets have worked their way back into playoff contention by beating struggling teams such as the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Charlotte Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers. But they passed a test Saturday night in beating the Celtics at every phase of the game.

Led by Charles Jones and Walker, they not only dominated the taller Celtics on the boards (47-33) but also ran them into the ground, producing 29 points on fast breaks.

Boston had boasted of its revived running game, featuring Brian Shaw, Reggie Lewis, Kevin Gamble and speedy rookie guard Dee Brown, but they never got untracked, commiting a season-high 24 turnovers.

Meanwhile, the Bullets were getting uncontested layups and six dunks by Grant, who has averaged 28 points and shot 54 percent from the field in the past five games.

"I haven't had that many slams since I was playing for Oklahoma," Grant said with a laugh.

Asked to explain the team's dramatic turnaround, King, who is leading the league in scoring (31.2), said: "Early on, I knew we had enough talent on this team, but I also knew it would take time for the younger players to mature.

"I couldn't determine if it it would take 15, 20 or 30 games for it to happen, but now it is all coming together, and we've surprised a lot of people with the way we're playing."

The Bullets face another major challenge, heading west this week for games against the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle SuperSonics before returning home to play host to the Orlando Magic on Jan. 21.

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