Better teams bring Bullets back to earth

December 13, 1993|By Phil Jackman

When the Washington Bullets split their first dozen games, there was singing in the USAir Arena parking lots. Delusions of 30 NBA victories, maybe 35, found refuge in the minds of the faithful.

Then came December and the good teams: Seattle, Phoenix, Portland, Atlanta.

"We had a chance when we got it down to four points," coach Wes Unseld said after his club had closed on the Hawks, 108-104, with just less than three minutes remaining at the packed (12,756) Baltimore Arena Saturday night.

As has happened seemingly without pause during the past few seasons, though, a string of open shots bounced away, and the visitors made off with a 116-108 triumph. It was their 13th in a row, a club record.

The loss was Washington's seventh straight heading into tomorrow night's road date at Indiana. And the experimenting goes on.

"We tried Mitch Butler with the first unit not only for defense [against Dominique Wilkins] but to provide [offensive] help for .. our second unit," the coach said. It appeared to work, too, the Bullets rushing to a 24-14 lead.

But Atlanta was just warming up. "We couldn't get the kind of [defensive] energy we needed early," coach Lenny Wilkens said, "but I was really impressed with the way we kept our poise. And, actually, it was our defense that got us back."

Plus the inability of Bullets defenders to prevent almost anyone in a red uniform from going to the rack for a layup or dunk. The early bulge was down to five by the end of the first quarter and the score was tied two minutes into the second period.

Defense? In the first 12 minutes, Atlanta mustered 14 hoops, and 10 of them were with the scorer's shooting hand virtually touching the rim. The dunk-a-rama continued until halftime when the Hawks were breezing, 67-58, as 20 of their 29 field goals were made from in close.

"It has been a problem all along, stopping stuff in the paint," said Unseld, who is hopeful for a radical change now that shot-blocker Pervis Ellison is back from off-season knee surgery. But the coach reminds, "you can't expect too much right off from a guy coming off two operations. He figures to be cautious for a while."

And isn't this the way it always is with the Bullets: If it isn't this, it's that or the other thing.

Take Kevin Duckworth, for instance. The 7-footer was brought in here to give the team a presence under the basket. Trouble is, he showed up too huge, the coach saying, "it looks as if conditioning will be a problem with him all season."

Similar to what has happened in a couple other games, Duckworth got off to a good start, hitting four of six attempts in the first 10 minutes and ending the quarter with eight points. Thereafter, he played just 12 minutes and finished with just one more point.

See, Unseld goes on what he observes is happening in a game, and if his big man isn't grabbing rebounds, blocking shots or otherwise being a clogging influence on defense, he sits. And Kevin's getting very good at that, averaging just more than half a game's playing time, appropriate for the half-game he brings to the mix.

It's Unseld's theory that as a rookie "you learn how to play the game," followed by a "jinx year when no matter what you try to do, it doesn't seem to work. By the third year, you've got to know if you can play or not."

Some nights, it appears as though second-year player Tom Gugliotta is going to be a star and fellow sophomore Don MacLean will be a reliable contributor, too. While Gugliotta was solid against Atlanta with 19 points and six rebounds, in Washington's last outing against Phoenix, "Googs" didn't score his first bucket until the Suns were leading 83-50. Saturday night, MacLean was never a factor coming off the bench, so his playing time was limited to 20 minutes.

While players are thinking to themselves they can't be impressing people or putting up gaudy numbers if they don't get the playing time, the coach sits there and works the combinations trying to figure out which mix gives him the best chance at victory. It's a dilemma that's been present since Naismith.

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