LANDOVER -- The talent difference between a first-place and last-place team was clearly evident at the Capital Centre last night as the division-leading New York Knicks methodically wore down the Washington Bullets, 109-98, before a sellout crowd of 18,756.
The Knicks, who have gained the label "Broadway Bullies" for their intimidating defensive style, used their superior strength and rebounding to gain total control in the last quarter after the Bullets had managed to hang within seven points late in the third period.
Even with All-Star center Patrick Ewing (19 points, 10 rebounds) sitting out the last 11 minutes, New York had too much muscle and manpower for the injury-depleted Bullets, still playing without center Pervis Ellison (knee) and guards Rex Chapman (ankle) and Doug Overton (thumb).
The Knicks did draw two technicals, plus a flagrant foul by John Starks, but there was really little need to bully the overmatched Bullets.
Driving the lane with impunity, Doc Rivers and Tony Campbell combined with reserve forward Anthony Mason to gain a 99-77 spread with seven minutes left, and New York (41-18) cruised to its fifth straight victory and 16th in the past 19 games.
The Bullets (16-43), of course, are lottery-bound, losers of six straight and 12 of their past 13.
And so the biggest challenge for the Knicks, battling the defending champion Chicago Bulls for the home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference playoffs, was maintaining their focus.
"Sometimes," said Knicks coach Pat Riley, "you have a tendency not to be ready for a team you think you can beat. We let them hang around for most of three quarters, but our effort was there for most of the time."
Riley geared the Knicks' aggressive defense to control the Bullets' trio of point guard Michael Adams and forwards Harvey Grant and Tom Gugliotta. It worked pretty well.
Adams scored 16 points, but hit only four of 12 shots. Gugliotta, the Bullets' prize rookie who hails from New York, continued to struggle against his hometown team. He made only two of 13 shots and finished with four points. He is 11 for 47 in four games between the two teams.
"I just didn't play worth a damn tonight," Gugliotta said. "But it's tough to get a good shot against them. They play very aggressive defense, and they bang a lot."
Grant scored a game-high 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, but was scoreless in the last quarter.
"Harvey had 15 points and six rebounds at halftime, and I still told him he was playing [poorly]," said Bullets coach Wes Unseld. "He wasn't doing anything to stop his man [Charles Smith] or helping out with our defensive rotation."
That proved a vulnerable point for the Bullets all night, particularly in stopping the Knicks' guards.
"The Knicks run a lot of baseline 'circle' plays for their guards," said Unseld. "Our 'help' on that play is [center] Charles Jones, but he's being pinned down by Ewing. Our guards have to flatten their guards out and stop them from driving the lane, but we didn't get it done."
Despite all these problems, the Bullets still made a game of it for 35 minutes. But ultimately, the Knicks' size and bulk led to a decisive 49-33 rebounding advantage that led to a number of breakaway baskets in the second half.
It won't get any easier for the Bullets, who play in Baltimore tonight against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
NOTES: In priming his team for next month's playoffs, Riley said Smith is playing a "vital" role. Acquired in a preseason trade with the Los Angeles Clippers, critics have labeled Smith a major disappointment. His scoring average is a modest 11.4. But Riley blames himself for putting too much pressure on the 6-foot-10 forward. "The fact that he's not [excelling] is my fault," said Riley. "I've taken him away from his natural position -- power forward -- to try and help the team. One day, when he gets back to where he belongs, he'll be far more productive. But I take responsibility for his game this year."