The Washington Bullets and the Atlanta Hawks are learning to survive these days playing without two of the NBA's premier small forwards -- Bernard King and Dominique Wilkins, respectively.
The Bullets (17-34) have struggled all season without King, who is recuperating from knee surgery, but the Hawks (26-25) have adapted well since Wilkins went down with a season-ending Achilles' tendon injury Jan. 28, splitting their past 10 games.
Yesterday was a case in point, as the Hawks beat the Bullets, 117-110, before a Baltimore Arena capacity crowd of 12,054. Baltimore native Duane Ferrell and Alexander Volkov filled in for Wilkins and combined for 28 points, and the Hawks broke away from a 106-106 tie with 2:28 left.
The reasons were all too familiar to Bullets coach Wes Unseld, who has watched his team disappear from playoff contention by losing 12 of its past 15 games.
The Bullets were overpowered on the boards, 51-37, with Hawks power forward Kevin Willis accounting for 16 rebounds. They gave up 19 on the offensive end, and the Hawks' second chances proved critical in crunch time.
And once more, the Bullets' absence of a go-to guy in their half-court offense was too much to overcome in the closing minutes when Tom Hammonds committed a turnover and Larry Stewart's shot was blocked by Blair Rasmussen.
This recurring problem was magnified by the absence of starting forward Harvey Grant, who was sidelined with a bruised shin.
"We just don't have enough people to get the job done," said Unseld. "We're already without King, and then you take away Grant's 18 points a game. We're just not talented or physical enough to make up the difference."
The Bullets managed to make it tough on the Hawks mainly on the strength of a season-high 30 points from Ledell Eackles, getting his first start of the season, in place of Grant.
"He was the only other player I had who knew the plays from the three spot," said Unseld. "I had to try to keep some continuity. I've never worried about Ledell's ability to score. It's the other things in his game that concern me."
Eackles was at his acrobatic best, making 14 of 23 shots in 33 minutes. His last basket, a 17-footer from the top of the key, tied the game for the last time at 106. But the Hawks responded with seven straight points -- three by Ferrell -- to put it out of reach.
Hawks coach Bob Weiss had contemplated yanking Ferrell, a Calvert Hall graduate, in the fourth quarter after several of his shots were rejected by Pervis Ellison (25 points, 13 rebounds, six blocked shots).
But he stuck with Ferrell, who made a long jumper to give Atlanta a 100-97 lead with 5:27 left.
"I was struggling a little bit, pressing in front of my friends and family," Ferrell said. "Last time I was here, I didn't get to play that much and [I] wanted to make the most of it today. Once I hit a few shots, I started to relax and just let the game flow."
Ferrell got plenty of help from point guard Rumeal Robinson (28 points, six assists), Willis (19 points, 16 rebounds) and reserve guard Snoopy Graham, who saved nine of his 15 points for the fourth quarter, including two three-pointers.
Robinson, who had been benched earlier this month for inconsistent shooting, repeatedly broke down the Bullets' defense by penetrating the middle for layups or dishing off to Willis and Ferrell for close-in shots.
"I didn't play Rumeal well personally," said Bullets point guard Michael Adams (21 points, seven assists). "He kept penetrating, and we didn't rotate well when he got in the lane."
Weiss has relied more on Robinson while seeking ways to compensate for Wilkins' absence.
"In some of our recent losses," said Weiss, "we went through long non-scoring streaks at the end of the game. But Rumeal is starting to finish for us now, and giving us that needed lift in the final minutes."
For the Bullets, the news only gets worse. When they play the Hawks again in Atlanta tomorrow night, they will be without Grant and Hammonds, who reinjured his groin muscle. Reserve center Charles Jones, who has missed the past three games while visiting with his ailing mother in Georgia, is listed as doubtful.