LANDOVER -- For a team that won't be at full strength until next year, the Washington Bullets have survived better than anyone had a right to expect.
Yesterday's 121-119 win over the Orlando Magic was hardly a classic, but it was a survival test that highlighted a very strong point about a very mediocre team. It also served as a clear demonstration that Ledell Eackles can supply instant firepower -- but still has a way to go before he's ready for full-time status.
After blowing a 14-point lead in less than five minutes in the third quarter, the Bullets had just enough good fortune to win at the end. Darrell Walker hit a 20-foot jump shot with 1.4 seconds remaining -- a play on which he was only an afterthought.
"It [the game-winner] was an option," said coach Wes Unseld. "It wasn't the first option . . . or the second option . . . or the third option, but it was an option." Suffice it to say that Walker was the least of Orlando's concerns when the play began.
The win was important for the Bullets because they had lost three of four on a West Coast trip and were opening a stretch of four straight home games that will take them to the midway point of the season. It was significant only because they managed to escape another close call.
It was the eighth time this year the Bullets (17-21) have played a game decided by one or two points. They have won seven, an amazing percentage for a sub-.500 team, but few of them have been shootouts like yesterday's contest.
"We can't just swap points with teams," said Unseld, "because sooner or later we'll be overmatched."
With Bernard King (22 points) suffering through an off-shooting game (6-for-18), the scoring load fell to Harvey Grant (31 points) and Eackles (25 in 26 minutes). Eackles' production off the bench may have saved the Bullets, but the overall effect suggests his early-season contract dispute has delayed the blending process between himself and the rest of the team.
Despite his prolific scoring, the Bullets were outscored by two points during the time Eackles was on the floor yesterday (10 during the second half). That may or may not be coincidental, but it undoubtedly is a concern to Unseld, who will soon be faced with a decision on John Williams, another key early-season absentee.
Williams tentatively was ticketed to make his debut tomorrow night, when the Bullets host Atlanta. He's due for a weigh-in and physical today and the 6-foot-9 forward expressed hope he would receive clearance to play.
"I'm going to do as much work as I can before that weigh-in, and we'll know tomorrow [today]," said Williams.
But Unseld, still trying to get Eackles completely back into the flow of the game, has reservations that go beyond a medical clearance. Asked if the weigh-in was the pivotal issue with Williams (who has been targeted to reach 265), Unseld said: "It's up to the doctors, a complete physical examination."
And if the doctors say Williams is ready to perform? "Then it will be up to me to determine if he's in shape to play," said Unseld. "And I'm not ready to make that determination yet."
At least part of the problem with Williams is the fact that Eackles, in effect, has had to play his way into NBA shape -- and it has been a tedious process. With the second half of the season on the horizon, the Bullets could use another spark in an effort to make the playoffs.
Whether Williams can provide that spark under existing circumstances is a tough call, and one that Unseld might not be in a hurry to make.
Walker's game-winning field goal gave him a triple-double -- 10 points, 15 rebounds and 13 assists. The latter two figures led both teams. Grant, who had been listed as questionable because of shin splints, played 46 minutes and hit 14 of 24 shots. Eackles was 12-for-20.
Dennis Scott (30), Scott Skiles (27) and ex-Bullet Terry Catledge (24) combined for 81 points for Orlando, losers of 18 of 20 road games this year.