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  •   Young Bullets Show They Can Rebound

    By J.A. Adande
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, April 21, 1997; Page A1

    CLEVELAND, April 20 — The Washington Bullets today saw a glimpse of what they hope the future has in store for them: a young, talented team playing in a glistening new arena and winning its most important game of the season.

    The Bullets won a spot in the National Basketball Association playoffs for the first time since 1988 by beating the Cleveland Cavaliers, 85-81, at Gund Arena, which served as the model for the MCI Center that will house the Bullets next season. By then the team will be known as the Wizards and they hope to start a tradition of winning.

    "It's been a long time since we've been in the playoffs," team owner Abe Pollin said. "These guys, they've got a long way to go yet. We're just starting."

    The game ended with two close friends and teammates, Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, clutching each other in the middle of the court, and the tears running down Webber's face were testament to the meaning of his youthful team's accomplishment.

    "The first few years here were so hard that to be in the playoffs is huge," Webber said. "We're in a city where no team has made it to the playoffs — not the Redskins, not the Capitals — and you could see even here today how much it means to people."

    The Bullets will begin the playoffs — what many consider to be the "real" NBA season — Friday in Chicago in the first game of a best-of-five series against the defending NBA champion Bulls. Although they are given little chance of beating Chicago, the Bullets know that, at the least, they need to experience competition against the best the league has to offer in order to learn what it takes to win. And the chance to compete sure beats the alternative of watching from home, which looked to be the team's fate in early February, when Coach Jim Lynam was fired.

    Under Lynam's replacement, Bernie Bickerstaff, the Bullets won 22 of 35 games to finish with a 44-38 record, good enough to earn the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They shed the underachieving label that had dogged them all season, even if it took them until the last day of the season. Today the Bullets faced the pressure of having to beat the Cavaliers or miss the playoffs yet again. The Bullets already had been out of the postseason longer than any other current NBA team.

    The Bullets had not had a winning season since 1986-87, and their 44 victories were the most for the franchise since it went 54-28 in 1978-79, the season after they won their only NBA title. Those were the glory days of Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes.

    "The fans will be totally psyched," team president Susan O'Malley said. "The last time I saw them this excited, Wes Unseld was wearing shorts."

    These days, Unseld wears a suit and is the general manager of the Bullets, presiding over a team that has been beset by ill-timed injuries and underachieving draft selections.

    At the start of the season, the Bullets never expected their drive to the playoffs to be such a struggle. After all the years of injury and misfortune, the Bullets finally seemed to have their club in order. The franchise and its followers were devasted when Howard, an all-star forward who became a free agent last summer, signed a contract with the Miami Heat. In an unprecedented move, the NBA voided that contract — citing violations of the league's salary cap — and allowed the Bullets to re-sign Howard for $105 million over seven years.

    Also during the offseason, they traded for point guard Rod Strickland and signed a pair of free agents, forward Tracy Murray and center Lorenzo Williams.

    With a payroll of more than $34 million — the fifth-highest in the league — the Bullets were one of the most expensive and flashy cars in the NBA showroom. It wasn't until after it left the lot that the problems became apparent.

    Gheorghe Muresan, the Bullets' 7-foot-7 center from Romania, missed the preseason and the first five games of the regular season with an injury and it took him about two months to round into form. Strickland had trouble adjusting to his new teammates; he didn't know whether to shoot or pass. Howard was slowed for the first two months by shin splints and ankle sprains. Murray, a three-point shooting specialist, couldn't make his shots with any consistency. Williams missed most of the season with a knee injury.

    The Bullets lost 11 of their first 18 games. By February, they were 22-24 and Unseld made a move, firing Lynam Feb. 5 after 2½ seasons.

    The slide continued under Bickerstaff as Washington fell to 10th in the Eastern Conference. Finally, though, things began to come together.

    The Bullets followed Bickerstaff's plan to keep the ball in Strickland's hands as much as possible to take advantage of his passing skills and ability to drive to the basket. They involved everyone in the offense and played better defense, winning 15 of 20 games to set up today's showdown. It was the first time the Bullets had anything to play for on the last day of the season since 1989.

    Just as the playoffs seemed out of reach when the Bullets were 5½ games out of the final playoff spot in February, the Bullets had to come from behind to win today.

    Cleveland led by 11 points late in the first half. That hardly constitutes an insurmountable lead in the typical NBA game. But Cleveland is a team that plays a slowdown style that has been likened to driving on the Beltway during rush hour or playing in a giant bowl of cream of wheat. The Bullets closed within two points at the end of the third quarter, then scored 11 of the first 15 points in the fourth quarter to take a five-point lead and hang in for the last five minutes.

    "It was a tough game," Strickland said. "Guys were tired out there, fatigued a little bit. We just stayed mentally tough. That's what it's all about."

    Webber helped keep up the intensity, scoring 23 points and getting 17 rebounds, while Howard added 11 points. Both 24, they were teammates at the University of Michigan who had been to the NCAA championships twice together and lost.

    "This is a very very special moment for Chris and I," Howard said. "We're two guys who've been through so much in college. We've faced so much adversity but we've stayed strong mentally.

    "This is the biggest game we've had since the college days. It's amazing how the two of us have worked so hard to be in the position that we're in right now. We made promises in the beginning of the season that we were going to be in the playoffs. If you think about this game and reflect back on the season, we have to hold our heads up high."

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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