BOWIE -- Returning point guards Darrell Walker and Mark Jackson will be the focus of attention when the Washington Bullets and New York Knicks meet at Madison Square Garden tonight in a game that could weigh heavily on the Bullets' fading playoff hopes.
With only 27 games left, the Bullets, who have lost seven of nine in Walker's absence, trail the Knicks by two games in the battle for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff berth.
Walker, sidelined since his most recent visit to the Garden, Jan. 31, when he strained ligaments in his right knee, is expected to provide help running the offense and as a defensive stopper.
The all-purpose guard, who leads the team in rebounding, was missed Saturday night when the Bullets suffered a 104-101 loss to the Knicks on Trent Tucker's buzzer-beating three-point shot.
Bullets coach Wes Unseld said it was not Tucker's shot that won it for the Knicks, but the ineffectual defense employed against Knicks shooting guard Gerald Wilkins, who easily drove past A.J. English and Ledell Eackles in the second half.
No one in New York knows what to expect from Jackson. Disgruntled all season because of his backup role to Maurice Cheeks, Jackson was suspended Friday for two games and fined $43,000 after being charged with "insubordination" by Knicks coach John MacLeod.
New York won both road games in Washington and Miami while Jackson and his agent, Don Cronson, formulated plans to file a grievance with the league.
Saturday night's victory at the Capital Centre provided a tremendous emotional lift for the Knicks, beset by internal bickering and the booing of their hometown fans who have seen them win only 11 of 28 games at the Garden.
But the return of Jackson could be a divisive force.
"How is Mark going to respond?" said MacLeod, anxious to bury the controversy. "I think positively. When he comes back, he'll sit down with all the coaches and we'll discuss the issue and then it will be in the past. We want to get this behind us."
But the players were taking sides. Team leader Patrick Ewing questioned the timing of the suspension, the day after the trade deadline passed. Jackson had been the subject of most of the rumors involving the Knicks.
A week earlier, Jackson had said his benching was the result of a "personal" vendetta against him by the Knicks organization. "If they were going to fine him, that's when it should have happened," said Ewing.
In the New York tabloids, minor debates quickly grow into full-scale wars. Given a similar scenario for potential trouble, Unseld soft-pedaled reports that forward Harvey Grant was complaining about his diminishing role in the Bullets offense.
Again, yesterday after practice, Grant, who is averaging 18.6 points and 7.4 rebounds, voiced concern over becoming a "forgotten man," after attempting only seven shots in Saturday's loss to New York.
"If I've been doing the job all year, why do they stop going to me?" Grant asked. "You run the floor hard, get open, and no one gets you the ball. If I'm the second go-to guy on the team after Bernard [King], I should be getting more shots."
Unseld chose not to confront Grant, but said, "That's how Harvey perceives thing. But it's how I perceive things that counts.
"The ball distribution isn't what it was earlier because we were using English at a new position [point guard]. He had to make adjustments, but so do the other players. They have to move more to get better passing angles and working harder to get free."
Unseld had other decisions to ponder. It seemed likely that reserve forward Mark Alarie, still experiencing soreness in his left knee, will be placed on the injured list for five games. This would allow the Bullets to re-activate Walker today without having to cut anyone. Reserve guard Byron Irvin appeared the most vulnerable.