The Cleveland Cavaliers didn't do Gene Littles any favor when they made him interim coach after firing Coach George Karl. It was like being named captain of a sinking ship.
To begin with, the assistant coach was put in charge of a team in a slump and in danger of blowing itself out of the playoffs. In addition, his first two games were against the two best teams in the Eastern Conference, Philadelphia and Boston.
After playing a tough, but losing game in Philadelphia Monday night, the slumping Cavaliers were blown out by the Boston Celtics Tuesday night at Hartford. With Larry Bird scoring 34 of his 43 points in the first half, the Celtics built a big lead and coasted to a 126-96 victory.
Last week, when Cavalier management told Karl his contract would not be renewed, the club was holding a three-game lead in the battle for the final playoff spot in the East. The fifth loss in a row cut the margin to half a game over Indiana and a game over Chicago.
In a press conference at Richfield, Ohio, Wednesday, Karl, in tears, admitted he was disappointed and confused by the firing Sunday. He also said he had had problems with players World B. Free and Mel Turpin. "It was a tougher season than the 2-19 start the year before," Karl said.
It was because the Cavaliers recovered from the horrible start and made the playoffs that Karl, only 34, earned acclaim as a fine coach.
Now, it appears the Cavaliers are collapsing. They have 13 games remaining and, with the possible exception of a home game with the New York Knicks, figure to be the underdog in all of them.
Tuesday's was another of a string of hot games for Bird. He played only 29 minutes but sank five out of six three-point shots to become the all-time NBA leader with 248. In his last six games he has made 18 out of 24 three-pointers.
In those six games, he has scored 219 points for a 36.5 average.
The Celtics have won five in a row and 30 of their last 35. They lead the Atlantic Division by 11 1/2 games with a 55-13 record.
Milwaukee 116, Washington 87--Charles Davis came off the bench in the second quarter at Milwaukee to score 11 of his 26 points and help the Bucks build a big lead. The Bucks led, 58-39, at halftime and easily handed the fading Bullets their fourth loss in a row.
The victory stretched the Bucks lead in the Midwest Division to four games over idle Atlanta. The Bucks have 13 games left.
New York Knicks 107, New Jersey 103--James Bailey scored eight of his season-high 31 points in overtime at East Rutherford, N.J., to help the Knicks end an eight-game losing streak. Bailey also had 11 rebounds for the Knicks, who trailed, 54-40, in the third period before Bailey ignited their rally.
Dallas 120, San Antonio 113--When his starting five fell behind by 10 points in the first quarter at Dallas, Coach Dick Motta brought Dale Ellis and Jay Vincent off the bench.
They brought the Mavericks from behind, and Dallas went on to win. Ellis, sinking six of seven three-point tries, scored 28 points in 32 minutes, while Vincent scored 19 in 23 minutes.
Houston 112, Phoenix 109--Allen Leavell scored a season-high 23 points at Houston, including two free throws with four seconds remaining to clinch the Rockets' victory.
The Rockets held a 103-87 lead with 5:56 left, but Walter Davis led a furious Suns' rally that put them just one point behind, 110-109, with seven seconds left. Leavell was fouled, converted both shots and the Suns threw away the inbounds pass.
Utah 107, Seattle 104--Ricky Green hit five jumpers in the closing minutes and the SuperSonics turned the ball over seven times in that period, the last time when trailing by one with four seconds remaining, to allow the visiting to Jazz to escape with a victory.
Utah's Adrian Dantley led all scorers with 28 points. He had 22 in the first half, but then suffered a cut over his right eye that required stitches at halftime.
Sacramento 117, Denver 113--Reggie Theus' free throw with 20 seconds left secured the Kings' victory at Sacramento and, combined with San Antonio's loss to Dallas, moved the Kings one-half game ahead of the Spurs in the race for a playoff berth in the West.