LANDOVER -- As they wished each other a pleasant summer, most of the Washington Bullets donned colorful caps that read Mo Better, a variation on the title of Spike Lee's last movie, "Mo Better Blues."
And certainly, a club that finished the season 30-52 and as battered and bruised as the Bullets should hope to play mo' better if they can only be mo' healthy.
Before the opening tip of yesterday's season-ending 89-87 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, Washington was already without three of its top four players -- forward Bernard King, center Pervis Ellison and forward John Williams, who was a late scratch, arriving at the Capital Centre but leaving with the flu.
With reserve center Charles Jones, forward Mark Alarie and guard Byron Irvin already out, the Bullets were down to eight dressed players, the league minimum.
However, three minutes into the second quarter, guard Ledell Eackles came up hobbling after a midcourt collision with Minnesota's Scott Brooks, and left with a hyperextended knee. And, early in the fourth quarter, Darrell Walker, the team's captain and best defensive guard, was ejected for arguing a call.
That left six players, which is too few even against the hapless Timberwolves (29-53), winners of just eight road games this year.
"I kept thinking, 'Haven't I seen this before,' " said coach Wes Unseld.
"It was pretty much like that the whole season," said forward Tom Hammonds, who capped a strong final two weeks with a career-high 21 points and nine rebounds. "There's nothing you can do about that but do the best you can."
In the first period, the Bullets did just that, shooting a blistering 81 percent and making their first seven shots on the way to a 36-18 lead.
Alas, they would score only 51 points in the remaining 36 minutes, as Brooks and Tony Campbell led the Timberwolves back from a 20-point deficit. Campbell hit the game-winning jumper as time ran out, picking up the ball after a mad scramble following a Tyrone Corbin miss.
"It all happened so fast I don't really know what happened," said Campbell, who finished with 22 points. "The ball just popped in front of my eyes and I grabbed it. I knew it was going in."
Hammonds thought otherwise. "I thought the ball was short. I went to get the ball and there was a scramble on the floor and then Campbell picked up the ball," said Hammonds. "I ran at him as fast as I could, but he hit a tough shot."
As Unseld said yesterday, the Timberwolves game was "a microcosm" of the entire Bullets season.
In January, Washington was within hailing distance of the New York Knicks, and a brilliant 49-point performance by King in Madison Square Garden led more than a few to believe that the Bullets might actually get into the playoffs.
"I knew going in that there was the possibility that this would be a tough season for us," said Unseld. "But then we started to put together some wins toward the end of January and I thought we might not only surprise some other people, but surprise ourselves as well. It was just about that time that things started to fall apart."
With virtually all of the Bullets regulars hurt, the team plummeted through February and March, including a whopping nine-game losing streak and six other three-game ones.
"I think we have a playoff team here," said guard Haywoode Workman. "It just goes to show you what injuries can do to a team. If we had our full team and kept playing the way we were before the injuries, we'd be getting ready for the playoffs."
Instead, after individual meetings with Unseld today, the Bullets will be scattering.
But if there is a bright spot, it is that with the injuries, some unknown, untested players, like Workman, Hammonds and rookies Greg Foster and A.J. English got some valuable experience.
"Those guys got a feel for what the game is all about, what the NBA is all about," said Harvey Grant. "Hopefully, they can come in and contribute even more next year."
In addition, Grant stepped on the verge of NBA stardom in his third year, averaging 18 points and seven rebounds. If Williams follows through on his pledge to report to camp in shape next year, after battling with a weight problem all year, and if the team, which will have a lottery draft pick, selects wisely, the Bullets should be improved.
"We will make the playoffs next year," said Walker. "I guarantee that."
In other words, they'll be mo' better.