In a foul-marred game against their most imposing foe this preseason, the Washington Wizards failed to handle the New York Knicks' occasional pressure and rebounding dominance in an 89-79 loss tonight before 8,221 at Pepsi Arena.

The failure of the Wizards--particularly their starters--to match New York's aggressive play in the middle quarters was their downfall in this contest of Atlantic Division teams. The Wizards (2-2) also were outrebounded, 46-36, by New York (2-4).

"I thought that our starters didn't come out with a lot of fire," Wizards Coach Gar Heard said. "I thought the bench got us back in the game in the second quarter and the third quarter. We've got to have our starters play the same way. The only consistent guy out there in the starting lineup was Juwan Howard."

Howard scored 18 points and grabbed a team-high 12 rebounds. Backup forward Tracy Murray pumped in a game-high 20 points and backup guard Laron Profit added 11. Murray and Profit kept Washington close by completing long-range jumpers in the second half.

Profit showed uncustomary range from the perimeter and an abundance of confidence against Knicks guard Latrell Sprewell (15 points). His showing may have helped him solidify a roster spot. Heard said before the game that faring well against such strong competition could be a determining factor for the guards trying to make the team.

"He went up against one of the best guards in the league and did well," Heard said of Profit. "Profit and Chris Whitney were our best combination tonight."

Whitney had seven points and five assists. Starting guards Rod Strickland and Richard Hamilton combined for nine points, one assist and two rebounds. New York guard Allan Houston, who tied Murray with 20 points, posted Hamilton up early and drew two quick fouls on the first-round draft pick.

From that point on, the Wizards' starting back-court's aggressiveness seemed to wane.

"It was good for me going up against him," Hamilton said of Houston. "It was a learning experience."

Starting center Jahidi White had six points and nine rebounds. Though his scoring totals were modest, Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy was in awe of the second-year player's improvement and inside presence. "He moved us at will," Van Gundy said.

White was the only center Washington had available. Starter Ike Austin (strained hip flexor) and rookie Calvin Booth (sore right hamstring) did not make the trip. The Wizards were also without starting shooting guard Mitch Richmond (sore right hamstring).

New York pulled away from Washington in the second quarter, when forward Larry Johnson scored 12 of his 18 points. He was able to get inside on Howard, Michael Smith and Gerard King. He also knocked down a three-pointer from the right corner at the end of the second period to give the Knicks a 50-39 lead.

"We let Larry Johnson kill us in the second quarter," Heard said. "Our guys were scared to get there on the double team. They were late getting there."

In the second half the Wizards held Johnson scoreless, doubling him as soon as he touched the ball.

New York took an 18-point, third-quarter lead after an 11-0 run to make the score 66-48. A three-point barrage by Murray and Profit at the end of the period brought Washington back, as it cut New York's lead to 69-61 heading into the fourth.

It wasn't until Whitney's driving layup with 2 minutes 14 seconds left in the third that Washington reached 50 points. That basket cut the Knicks' lead to 16 and also provided the spark the Wizards needed.

Murray buried two three-pointers around a 15-foot jump shot and a three-pointer from Profit in an 11-2 run to close the quarter.

"When our starters are off to a slow start, everybody has to play when we get in," Murray said. "Laron came in and gave us some needed energy."

Wizards Notes: Austin, who has been unable to practice or play because of a strained left hip flexor, is scheduled for X-rays Tuesday. Power forward Aaron Williams (bruised right thigh) did not play."