PHILADELPHIA -- It was a new era for the Washington Bullets last night, a season opener in which Kevin Duckworth was expected to provide the team's first presence in the middle in years. Unfortunately for the Bullets, it was the man who was their last presence in the middle who did them in.
Moses Malone, who in his final year with Washington during the 1987-88 season was the last real center the Bullets had before acquiring Kevin Duckworth, returned to the 76ers after an eight-year absence and scored 16 points in just 18 minutes of play in Philadelphia's 94-82 win before a crowd of 14,531 at the Spectrum.
Malone's role on the team was to provide some schooling for 76ers 7-foot-6 first pick Shawn Bradley, who the organization is hoping will be a franchise player. But while the rookie continued to struggle as he adjusts to the NBA game (six points, on 2-of-12 shooting, and five rebounds), it was Malone who was on the court hitting key baskets when Philadelphia was attempting to hold off a second-half rally by the Bullets.
"Moses came in and did what he has done for the last 20 years," saidWashington forward Tom Gugliotta, who had 18 points and 19 rebounds. "That broke our back."
The 38-year-old Malone scored nine straight points for Philadelphia in one stretch of 1:31 of the second quarter. But he did his biggest damage at the start of the fourth quarter with the 76ers, who had led by as many as 15, holding on to a 67-64 lead.
Sixers coach Fred Carter yanked Bradley after the rookie threw up a wild hook at the end of the third quarter. Malone started the fourth quarter by hitting an eight-foot jump shot and the ensuing free throw after being fouled by Tito Horford. That started a 12-2 run by Philadelphia, with seven of the points coming from Malone, and the 76ers suddenly had a 79-66 lead and control of the game.
"Moses Malone is some player, isn't he?" Carter said of his backup pivot man, who scored his 16 points in a span of 4:06. "He was such a stabilizing factor coming off the bench. A young team needs that."
And so do the Bullets, who got off to the slow start that most within the organization have anticipated. Duckworth is expected fill a void at center this season, but struggled in his Washington debut, getting just nine points and three rebounds in 41 minutes. He was elbowed in the throat late in the game by Bradley, and unable to speak about his performance after the game.
From a team perspective, the Bullets didn't have much to speak about. Washington shot just 39.3 percent from the field, and had just one player in the regular rotation who shot at least 50 percent (rookie Calbert Cheaney was five of 10 from the field in scoring 10 points). Don MacLean scored 19 points to lead the Bullets, to go along with 10 rebounds, but there weren't many positives.
"Tonight we regressed a little bit," Gugliotta said. "The last few games of the preseason we played well. . . . I don't know what happened."
No interior defense was one key for the Bullets, who were kind to the 76ers in establishing an early open-door policy to the basket. Incredibly, 17 of Philadelphia's 21 first-half field goals came from within five feet of the basket -- 14 coming on either layups or dunks.
It was so bad that Bradley caught the ball at the free-throw line late in the second quarter, dribbled unchallenged to the basket and dunked with two hands.
"It was very frustrating," Gugliotta said. "We weren't getting back on defense in time and we weren't covering for each other. We did a better job in the second half."
That's when Washington, which trailed 50-37 at the half and by as many as 15 early in the third quarter, made its move.
Down 63-50 after two free throws by Bradley, Washington went FTC on a 14-2 run that after a tip-in by Gugliotta, had the Bullets within 65-64 with 1:17 left in the quarter. At the end of three quarters Washington trailed, 67-64, and appeared to be in good shape to make a fourth-quarter push.
And then Malone, the last player around who played in the old American Basketball Association, stepped forward.
"If I play one minute, or 48 minutes I'm going to play hard," said Malone, who got the biggest ovation during pre-game introductions. "This was only one game. It's a long season and I'm going to have to keep my concentration level high."
While Bradley struggled offensively, he did have a presence on the defensive end, where he was credited with eight of Philadelphia's 14 blocks.
"I was more relaxed for this game then I was for the first preseason game," said Bradley, who gets to face the Orlando Magic and Shaquille O'Neal tonight. "It was great. It was good to have the home-court advantage."
The Bullets are hoping the advantage will come into play tonight, where the USAir Arena is sold out for tonight's home opener against the Boston Celtics. "It was the first game and we're just getting the kinks out," MacLean said. "Hopefully we'll come back strong tonight."
Opponent: Boston Celtics
Site: USAir Arena, Landover
Radio: WXZL (103.1 FM), WTEM (570 AM)
Tickets: Sold out
Outlook: The Bullets are looking for their first win after a 94-82 loss at Philadelphia in the season opener last night. Washington shot just 39.3 percent from the field, and was out-rebounded, 50-41, in losing to what is probably one of the worst teams in the Atlantic Division. Boston opened the season last night at home with a 111-108 loss to New York.