LANDOVER -- The 1991-92 Cleveland Cavaliers boast what former Baltimore manager Earl Weaver called "deep depth" when his Orioles ruled the American League.
Challenged by one of the season's best efforts from the struggling Washington Bullets last night, Cavaliers coach Lenny Wilkens called on his talented reserves, and they proved the difference in a 111-102 victory before 8,935 at the Capital Centre.
Led by sixth man John Williams' 25 points, the Cleveland subs combined for 54 points. They were particularly effective in the fourth quarter when the Cavaliers, trailing 84-80, scored 11 straight points and never looked back.
Cleveland made its first seven shots in the final period and 14 of 18 to discourage any comeback bid by the Bullets. Reserve guard John Battle scored 12 of his 16 in the final quarter and Danny Ferry (11 points, six rebounds) chipped in with three key baskets in his best outing in three months.
But Williams and recently acquired small forward Mike Sanders (16 points) were the Bullets' chief tormentors.
Williams began the second half in place of starting center Brad Daugherty, who was weakened by stomach flu and scored only three points in the first half, ending a streak of 169 straight games in double figures.
In the past two years, the Cavaliers were unable to overcome an inordinate number of injuries to such key players as Mark Price, Daugherty and Larry Nance. But playing last night without Daugherty and Craig Ehlo (sidelined for four to six weeks with a knee sprain), the Cavaliers hardly missed a beat.
Sanders, who had been released by the Indiana Pacers on Nov. 16, was collecting his $960,000 salary while playing pickup games in an Indianapolis health club when the Cavaliers offered him a 10-day contract last week.
"We had Mike here for almost two years before losing him to Indiana," said Wilkens. "He was a great pickup for us. He knows our system and most of the players here."
Said Sanders: "I worked on some things and kept practicing in the offseason, waiting for the right offer. But the guys on this team make me play better because they're so good."
While the Bullets were forced to rely heavily on the one-on-one abilities of Ledell Eackles (26 points) and A.J. English (18) to create shots out of their halfcourt offense in the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers consistently found the open man for high-percentage shots.
"These guys have been together so long," said Bullets forward Harvey Grant, "a guy like Price can pass to a spot on the floor
and know someone will be there to catch it and put it in the hole. And they just keep sending in these big guys who can all run the floor and shoot the ball."
The Bullets simply lacked the numbers and size to hold off the Cavaliers, who had a 39-30 advantage on the boards. Pervis Ellison, with 11 rebounds to go with his 21 points, was outmanned inside by Williams, Nance and Ferry, who played most of the fourth quarter.
"They can put three guys on the court who are bigger than anyone we have," said Bullets coach Wes Unseld. "If you double down on Williams or Nance inside, they kick the ball outside to TTC Price, Battle or Ferry who hit the jump shot. And inside, we're not physical enough to stop them from posting up."
The Cavaliers (44-20), who won their fifth straight, still are 9 1/2 games behind the defending champion Chicago Bulls in the Central Division race. But they loom as the only team with a legitimate chance to upset the Bulls in the Eastern Conference ++ playoffs.
Asked to compare life with this team with his injury-riddled squads of the past two years, Wilkens smiled and said, "I've got fewer gray hairs."