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  •   Webber Exhibits Return to Power

    By Ric Bucher
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, February 25, 1998; D1

    Chris Webber didn't wait until his right shoulder was better to make his return for the Washington Wizards — he waited until it was better than ever.

    Webber, after missing eight games with a strained right shoulder, poured in a season-high 36 points and grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds while playing 44 minutes last night to lead the Wizards to a 124-112 victory over the Houston Rockets at MCI Center. He blocked three shots, snatched rebounds that forced him to reach awkwardly behind his head and threw down a pair of two-handed reverse dunks without a noticeable wince.

    "I just wanted to make sure that I came back ready to play. I wasn't tired for one second. It was fortunate and guys were looking for me." said Webber, who was injured on Feb. 2. Fellow forward Juwan Howard sprained his left ankle three days later, and he missed his seventh straight game last night.

    Webber, though, was by no means the lone catalyst in ending a four-game losing streak for the Wizards while extending the Rockets' string of defeats to three. Guard Calbert Cheaney, regardless of what the box score might suggest, won his battle with Rockets veteran guard Clyde Drexler. Center Terry Davis and forward Ben Wallace combined to limit center Hakeem Olajuwon to 19 points. Forward Tracy Murray provided a deep threat with 27 points (including 4 of 5 three-pointers). Point guard Rod Strickland controlled the tempo and posted 31 points and 15 assists.

    "I thought we did a nice job of moving the ball and pushing it when we could," said Coach Bernie Bickerstaff.

    They also maintained their composure for the most part, a rarity in recent meetings with the veteran-laden Rockets, especially since they acquired forward Charles Barkley, whose combination of one-on-one moves and choice comments has frequently distracted the Wizards, most notably Webber. Barkley still toyed with several Wizards in the second quarter, spinning past Webber for a baseline layup despite being fouled by a late-arriving Harvey Grant, and then faking Wallace into the air and driving for a dunk despite being fouled by Wallace from behind.

    But 14 of Barkley's 16 points came in the first half. He spent most of the second half arguing with the officials, eventually earning two ejections from the game, one by fouling out and the other by picking up a pair of technical fouls for chastising referee Bennie Adams.

    "I just can't put into words what I feel tonight," said Barkley. "Any time you lose to a team like that, that isn't even going to make the playoffs, you've got to wonder."

    That Barkley could be right — the victory improved the Wizards' record to only 28-28 and they remain in 11th place in the battle for eight Eastern Conference playoff spots — seemed to have a sobering effect on the jubilation over Webber's return.

    "It's just unfortunate that he got hurt because with him and Juwan we could've made a run and have been in a comfort zone," Bickerstaff said. "We're in deep now and it's going to take a heck of a run. It's not good when you don't have your destiny in your own hands."

    And for all of the positive elements to the Wizards' performance, it was not complete. They shot poorly from the free throw line (67 percent) and started off sluggishly, trailing for most of the first quarter and falling behind by seven in the second quarter. But that's when Strickland essentially took over, scoring 11 points and handing out three assists over the final eight minutes of the period, turning a 40-33 deficit into a 58-50 halftime lead, capped by a 44-foot buzzer-beating shot.

    "He played like an All-Star, like he's been playing all year," Bickerstaff said.

    The Rockets looked tired in the third quarter as the Wizards expanded their lead to 19, but they trimmed the difference to 11 with more than five minutes left. That's when the Wizards truly felt the luxury of having Webber back. He nailed consecutive jumpers over Barkley and then induced him to pick up his fifth and sixth fouls within 11 seconds.

    "He played a terrific game," Barkley said. "I'm very frustrated and disappointed."

    No one enjoyed having Webber back more than Strickland, who has been carrying the load without Webber and Howard.

    "It felt a whole lot better knowing we have someone else on the court who can dominate," Strickland said. "And the end of the game was a perfect example. It's somewhat of a security blanket."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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