LANDOVER -- Two games do not a season make, especially when the schedule stretches to about the time the Cleveland Indians are bowing out of the American League East race late next spring.
But 12-point losses to the 76ers in Philadelphia and to the Boston Celtics in their home opener Saturday gave unquestioned indication that the Washington Bullets have a long, arduous struggle ahead simply to achieve NBA respectability.
Oh, you knew that already!
As opposing players barged down the lane for uncontested layups and dunks, the newly structured offense of the Bullets looked about like you'd expect while being run by often unstructured players.
"The losses," coach Wes Unseld said, "weren't because of the defense. They [Philly and Boston] didn't get that many points [94 and 100]. They got a lot of easy shots in stretches, but we had them, too. Difference was, they made theirs."
On Friday, the 76ers made two more buckets than the Bullets on five fewer field-goal attempts. The next night, the Celtics took just two more shots than the Bullets, but garnered 13 more field goals. Philly's first 14 points were scored on layups, dunks or foul shots. Meanwhile, Washington didn't get a close-in hoop until the home team had doubled its score at 14-7.
The first 10 points by the Celtics in the home opener came on shots only Moses Malone could miss before Dee Brown bombed one from 20 feet. The visitors added three more dunks before the first quarter was over.
All told, half the field goals scored against the Bullets in the two losses, 41 of 82, resulted from shots made from no more than an arm's length from the goal. The situation was not unlike their rivals playing from the ladies' tees while the Bullets were pushed back to the blue tees.
But, as he indicated, defense isn't worrying Unseld right now. He concludes that with game action and the return of shot-blocker Pervis Ellison, still rehabilitating two bum knees, the opposition won't be frolicking so freely in the paint.
The offense, though, is a different story. With the acquisition of Kevin Duckworth, the Bullets are now committed to a slowdown style of play and a half-court offense that includes set plays and Duckworth lumbering around in the pivot.
This is a rather drastic departure from last year's motion (constant movement) offense and some of the guys have been slow to pick it up and stick to it.
"We've got to execute better," said Unseld, who added that the team has been running the "sets" (plays) fine in practice, "but we have to take it on the floor with us."
Another thing: At 7 feet and 300 pounds, Duckworth certainly should be a huge presence around the hoop at both ends of the court. He hasn't been, though, not only because he's still having great difficulty putting back-to-back-to-back runs down the floor together, but because he's not accustomed to play in the NBA East: Belt a guy and ask questions later.
Duckworth indicated that before the team can expect its interior defense to get better and cut off easy baskets in close, "we have to get better individual defense." While it's true guards Michael Adams and Rex Chapman were guilty of gambles that didn't pay off, freeing their men in close, none of Washington's front-liners, particularly Duckworth, was there to lay a body on anyone.
From a tie at 23 against Boston, the Bullets surrendered the last six points of the first period and were able to get even just once (45-45) before the teams turned for home with the Celts up, 78-72. Boston ran off the next 10 points in just a minute and 45 seconds, doing it with not one of its starters on the floor.
The matchup of the guys coming off the benches bordered on the scandalous, Boston getting 40 points and 21 rebounds to Washington's six points and three boards. All things considered, Dino Radja, sub for the Celtics, was probably the best player in the game and fellow sub Xavier McDaniel was probably in the top five.
With a practice today, a game in Detroit tomorrow and another back home at USAir Arena Wednesday against the Knicks, Unseld sees all the work only helping the team's new offense, "although old habits are tough to break and some of the guys revert to the way they've always played. We'll keep going over it, and it's going to take time, but it will come . . . otherwise, we might have to try something else."
It was long after the basketballs had been put away and the sellout crowd had departed when a press lounge wit provided an optimistic note on the weekend activities: "Look it at this way, this will probably be the closest the Bullets will be to .500 all season."