The Washington Bullets let their guard down on a road trip through Texas last week when their makeshift starting backcourt of A.J. English and Ledell Eackles repeatedly was burned by rival guards from the San Antonio Spurs, the Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks in three straight lopsided losses.
But it was English and Eackles who bailed out the Bullets yesterday, combining for 51 points in a 108-104 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers before a Baltimore Arena crowd of 10,024.
English, a rookie from Virginia Union, was particularly impressive, playing before a large contingent of family and friends from his hometown of Wilmington, Del.
Forced to switch from his customary shooting guard position to a playmaker's role because of injuries that sidelined the Bullets' two point guards -- Darrell Walker and Haywoode Workman, English responded with a career-high 31 points and had 10 assists.
"I really didn't know who English was before the game," said Cavaliers guard Craig Ehlo, "but now I know. He can run and shoot. He looks like a player."
Eackles, first rounding into playing shape after missing all of training camp and reporting overweight, fought off back spasms and scored 20 points on eight-of-11 shooting from the field.
The third-year guard from New Orleans, groomed to replace traded Jeff Malone as the main backcourt scoring threat, was Washington's go-to guy in the last two minutes when he scored six straight points to provide a 105-98 lead. It was barely enough.
The Cavaliers (18-33), who had shown signs of getting back in the playoff hunt with three straight victories, had several opportunities to tie it.
Trailing 105-102, they first tried forcing the ball inside. But center Brad Daugherty missed a short jumper and a tip try, and forward Larry Nance (27 points) also blew a follow-up.
But the Bullets kept giving the Cavaliers more chances. A miss by Bernard King and a turnover by Eackles gave the visitors the ball with 32 seconds left.
Power forward John "Hot Rod" Williams missed an off-balance baseline shot, and the Bullets finally seemed safe after regaining possession with 17 seconds left. But after a timeout, Steve Kerr stole English's inbounds pass. First, Ehlo fired a three-point attempt that just missed tying the game.
"When I first got the ball, I didn't know where I was in regard to the three-point line," Ehlo said. "I had to step back and adjust my feet. That might have thrown me off enough to miss it."
Kerr won the scramble for a rebound and rushed another three-point attempt left-handed that resulted in an air ball. The Cavaliers were forced to foul Bernard King, who put it out of reach by hitting two free throws with four seconds left.
In ending a tailspin in which they had lost six of their past seven games, the Bullets (22-30) also scored a rare victory without a major contribution from King, who was held to 25 points -- almost five below his scoring average.
It hardly looked a propitious time for a turnaround when forwards Mark Alarie (tendinitis in his left knee) and Tom Hammonds (flu) joined Walker and Workman on the sidelines, leaving Wes Unseld with only 10 healthy bodies.
But the most active one was English, who played the entire 48 minutes and ignited a dormant Bullets fast break by consistently pushing the ball up the floor.
"A.J. played about a perfect first half," Unseld said. "He was hitting the open shot, finding the open man and also got us running. He played 48 minutes because we were in a bad situation with guys hurt. But he's a rookie. He still has young legs."
English, who was the NCAA Division II scoring leader last season when he averaged 33.4 points, still is getting accustomed to running the offense.
"I'm just not a natural point guard, and I don't think I'll ever be another Isiah Thomas," he said. "My first impulse is to look for a shot. Now I have to think of setting up my teammates. It's as tough a transition as coming from college to the NBA."
But English did just fine yesterday on offense and also on defense, where he lured Cavaliers starting point guard Darrell Valentine into two early charging fouls.
"After that, I never got my game together again," Valentine said. "Give A.J. the credit. He got them going offensively, and every time we doubled down on King, he hit the open shot. Today, he was the man."