LANDOVER -- There was still more than a minute remaining in the third period and the battered Washington Bullets led the New York Knicks, 57-51, when Gheorghe Muresan arose from the bench in sections and sauntered into the game.
Good grief, is this what it has come down to, Muresan, the 22-year-old, 7-foot-7 project from Transylvania, is suddenly Washington's "go-to" guy come crunch time?
Actually, the time might not be too far off when he might prove to be one of them.
Muresan is giving steady indication he's ready for a lot more than simple garbage-time assignments while holding his own against one of the league's best teams and top centers, Patrick Ewing.
No, the Bullets didn't win. But, yes, moral victories do count down at the USAir Arena these days.
Big Gheorghe scored 15 points, a career high, during a 24-minute stint as New York prevailed, 85-80, and only one other Bullet had more, Tom Gugliotta (18). In addition, Muresan did a good job on Ewing, making him work for every one of his 29 points and 12 rebounds, spread out over an exhausting 43-minute effort.
Admittedly, the Knicks looked no part of a team that is cruising along with a 32-11 record. They were sloppy, seemed bored and tired, and one of their top guns, John Starks, probably would have been better off staying home.
Meanwhile, the Bullets, missing their two best shooters, Don MacLean and Rex Chapman, with injuries, also continued to be saddled with a 7-0, 300-pound veteran center Kevin Duckworth who can manage only two points on nine shots in 24 minutes of playing time.
Now you've got the answer as to why Muresan's seeing much more action these days. "He played 24 minutes, huh?" coach Wes Unseld said. "You know, we don't know how much he can play. Maybe he can go 48 minutes. We're going to find that out."
Muresan ambles, he doesn't run. Dragging 333 pounds around can fatigue a guy quickly, particularly when his legs will probably never be strong or flexible enough to give him average mobility.
"But," said Unseld, "Gheorghe has got good understanding out there. He's excitable but he does a lot of good things." And he's learning when and how to expend his energy.
"I try to rest him when the other team's shooting foul shots,telling him to move down the other end and grab a breath," said the coach. "But every once in a while he'll yell at me for ordering him back, his thinking being that I don't think he can do the job on the defensive board. That's not it at all."
The teams started the fourth quarter square at 61 and no more than three points separated them until they were even again at 78-78 with 1:21 remaining. Muresan had hit a hook,a couple of dunks and the only three foul shots he had attempted.
Earlier, in a nine-minute,second-quarter stretch, Muresan had scored on a couple of layups and a short turnaround effort and grabbed four rebounds as the Bullets were moving to their biggest lead of the night,eight points.
With the game on the line, though, Ewing returned from a rest period and calmly tossed in a 16-footer. He had the luxury of time, Big Gheorghe deciding not to close in for fear Patrick would drive past him. Surprisingly, he got no help from his supposedly hoops-wary mates who had to know in a big situation like this Ewing was going to designate himself as the shooter.
Washington's counter to this was a turnaround, falling backward heave by Gugliotta. With the lead and possession, the Knicks rode the foul line to the buzzer.
"We only had two guys we could go to at the end [Gugliotta and Calbert Cheaney]," Unseld said. "And 'Googs' is going to have trouble getting a good shot because the other team knows that and it's doubling up."
Still, the game turned out to be more than simply a gutsy effort by a struggling team made worse by injury to its two main scorers. Besides Duckworth, the other big man the club was counting on for solid play, Pervis Ellison,has been so ineffective he hasn't even been playing half a game lately.
The surgeon who operated on the knees of "Never Nervous Pervis" last spring has been quoted as saying Ellison's knees may be completely "worn out" and his career could be in jeopardy. But the claim hasn't sent anybody in management to the panic button yet.
"After one of the top surgeons in the country operated on one of my knees, he told me I'd probably never be able to play again," said Unseld. "I played for six more years after that."
In any case, it's becoming comforting to know that fan favorite Gheorghe Muresan is a lot more than a curio.