After having his preseason interrupted by a personal hiatus and a trial on charges of driving under the influence, Washington Wizards point guard Rod Strickland is set to resume his basketball career. He has to catch his breath first.

"I'm winded," Strickland said after being put through a three-hour practice yesterday with the rest of the team. "Obviously, I'm not in tip-top shape."

Neither is his game, he said.

"I'm trying to get into a rhythm," Strickland added. "Practice is one thing. Games are another. I'm okay in practice but bad in games."

In three preseason games, Strickland averaged five points, 2.7 assists and two turnovers--very un-Strickland-like numbers. He never played in two consecutive preseason games because of his absences and he started only twice.

The Wizards open their season Tuesday against the Atlanta Hawks at MCI Center and because of Strickland's recent absences and a handful of other injuries, nobody knows if Washington will be in sync.

"We've got to find a way to play well the first five, six ballgames," Coach Gar Heard said, hoping his injured players will be healthy and his healthy players will be in shape by then. "After that we should be okay."

For the second straight season, Strickland is not in optimum condition at the outset. Last season it was a contract dispute that kept him away until the day before the regular season opened.

Personal issues and his trial--he was acquitted of DUI and reckless driving charges Friday--have stalled any progress Washington's point guard made during the first two weeks of training camp.

Strickland was excused from practice Oct. 19 to attend a funeral in New York. He missed the next day's practice without telling team management and was fined and held out of the Oct. 21 preseason game at Cleveland. He was excused from practice the following day and played 14 minutes in a reserve role against Cleveland Oct. 23.

He practiced the next day, then started in an 89-79 loss to the New York Knicks last Monday in Albany, N.Y. On Tuesday he was excused to meet with his legal counsel in Washington. His trial started Wednesday and lasted three days, during which the Wizards split two games with the Boston Celtics and held a practice.

"He looked pretty good but he's still way out of shape," Heard said of Strickland after yesterday's workout.

Injuries and Strickland's absences have not allowed the projected starting lineup of Strickland, Mitch Richmond, Juwan Howard, Ike Austin (strained left hip flexor) and Michael Smith to work together since the second day of practice.

Richmond suffered a strained right hamstring on the second day of drills, beginning a series of injuries that has incapacitated various members of Washington's lineup. With players slowly coming back, all eyes are on Strickland.

His importance to this team is paramount. The Wizards' offense begins with Strickland's full-court transition game, deft penetration and ability to create. If he cannot play in long stretches early, teams can double-team and trap Washington's other scoring options and limit their chances.

To get Strickland ready, Heard has prescribed extra conditioning work. Richmond went through twice-daily workouts last week after he was medically cleared. Heard said he hopes Strickland is as diligent.

"I would like for him to do it," Heard said. "We can't really force him to do it but we'd like him to, to make sure he won't die the first part of the game."

With Richmond and Strickland missing so much time during training camp, especially time with each other, there is the chance it could take well into the season before they gel into the imposing tandem some projected when Richmond was acquired last preseason in a trade for Chris Webber.

With just one preseason practice together last season, the duo combined for 35 points per game in Washington's 18-32 campaign. Teams loaded up on Strickland and Richmond because of the Wizards' injury-plagued and inconsistent front court. Both 11-year veterans said things should be better this time around.

"People talked about me and Mitch not blending last year," Strickland said. "We might not have blended as much as we might have if we had a preseason, but we played pretty well considering. . . . I'm worried about me getting my game up a notch."