Washington Wizards point guard Rod Strickland is stressing calm. Losing four straight games is bad, he said, but things can get better. Coach Gar Heard hopes Strickland will be the catalyst to generate Washington's resurgence, beginning tonight against the Miami Heat.

"He's one of the keys," Heard said.

Strickland can energize Washington's lineup, Heard said. But that begins in practice, and Strickland has missed some workouts and shown up late to others already this season. Washington's offense--and its chemistry--has suffered.

"You saw that [Wednesday] night, when Rod came into the game, he picked everything up," Heard said of Strickland's performance in a 109-95 loss to Seattle. "Rod has to do that in practice too. We have to learn how to play with Rod. I'd like for him to play in practice the way he's played in the games. I've told him that on several occasions."

Said Strickland: "To me, I'm practicing hard."

Strickland's effort is not so much in question as is his presence. He did not participate in most of yesterday's drills because of a sore back. He was late to practice Tuesday, which was the reason Heard did not let him start in Wednesday's loss.

Strickland has missed a number of practices for personal reasons. One of his absences was unexcused, and he was fined and withheld from playing in an exhibition game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Heard has held a firm line that none of his players can cross without punishment. So far, Strickland has been the only one to miss playing time for violating team rules.

Even though teammates said Strickland was upset that he did not start against the Sonics, Strickland's relationship with Heard is believed to be good.

"He might have been a little [ticked] off that he didn't start but he came in and gave us a spark," center Ike Austin said. "I thought overall the team played a lot harder."

Strickland's absences from practices have slowed the starting unit's development. However, Strickland isn't solely to blame. Forward Juwan Howard has been the only starter not to miss a practice or game.

"The starters have to work as a unit, but it seems like every time it's about to happen, one of those guys is out," Heard said. "I've yet to put them on the floor where they've had an opportunity to play together. That starts in practice. Today Rod was out with a bad back. We still haven't had an opportunity to have a practice together."

Strickland is projected to start tonight, as is shooting guard Mitch Richmond, who did not dress for Wednesday night's game because of a sore left knee.

The Wizards are still searching for a leader to push them through tough times, such as a 1-4 start. Although Strickland is not a vocal person, players say his considerable skills and on-court poise could jump-start their season.

The Wizards' downfall in at least three of their four losses has been their propensity to shoot jump shots instead of penetrating to the basket and getting to the foul line--particularly in tight situations. Strickland admitted that by being more aggressive, he might be able to get his teammates higher-percentage shots closer to the basket.

"I need to penetrate or get us in a set and get the ball down low," Strickland said. "Even when we're doing that, we swing the ball sometimes and that shot is real appealing. Sometimes it's wide open. Maybe we need to drive into the hole more.

"I've got to get into a flow. I don't think we've had a flow. Sometimes we're out there confused. We've got to get it together collectively."

Wizards Notes: Heard is concerned that rookie shooting guard Richard Hamilton is being targeted by opposing teams because of his defensive deficiencies. Not only are Hamilton's skills in question, but he also was labeled as being soft by some teammates at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico this summer, Heard said.

Hamilton sprained his right ankle and did not play in any games for the gold medal- winning U.S. team.

"I think the worst thing that happened to Richard was he didn't get a chance to play down in Puerto Rico this summer and guys got a perception that he's soft," Heard said. "When that gets on you, guys go after you."