Washington Wizards Coach Gar Heard called his team's play "soft" once more yesterday--and team owner Abe Pollin came to his defense a few hours later.

"Gar is not critical of the team," Pollin said during a very brief impromptu interview before he boarded a bus and joined players and team officials delivering holiday gifts to local families.

Pollin was told Heard did not back off from his evaluation after the 21-point loss to the Utah Jazz Tuesday night at MCI Center. Heard was a bit more specific after the team practiced for tonight's home game against the New Jersey Nets, saying: "My comment was that we played soft defensively. I still think the same way. . . . Even the best shooters miss about 50 percent of the time, so I can't get down when you miss a shot. The thing I don't like is when you miss a shot [and] don't get back on defense."

In addition to Heard's latest comments, Pollin was told the players also did not back off from insisting the coach was wrong.

"I think what has to happen," Pollin said, "is all of us have to stay together and just work together."

Is Pollin satisfied with Heard?

"Absolutely."

Earlier, the players again were strong in disagreeing with Heard's opinion.

"I don't consider myself soft," said point guard Rod Strickland. "Never have been. Never had that reputation--and I don't need anybody sticking that on me or my teammates."

During the 15 minutes or so reporters were allowed to observe the two-hour workout, no one seemed overly tense. There had been no clear-the-air meeting between Heard and the players, and shooting guard Mitch Richmond said none was necessary.

"This team is on the same page," he said. "We lost some games [17 of 23 overall and 8 of 11 at home], and anytime you lose, you really don't want to talk to anybody. [The lines of communication] are open. They said from day one if you've got something to say, say it. It's wide open."

The winner of tonight's game avoids last place in the Atlantic Division. With a 5-16 record going into their home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers last night, the Nets occupied that spot.

Heard said he is considering lineup changes.

"I haven't gotten to that point yet," he said. "Anything is possible. I'm not set in stone. I have to analyze the practice, see what we're going to do."

In the next breath, Heard talked about why he might stay with his starters.

"I also don't see where we can really go," he said. "We're starting our best five guys. It's about contributing during the minutes you get. Guys are getting minutes. They have to produce."

Backup center Jahidi White had six rebounds in 15 minutes against the Jazz, made both his field goal tries, had a steal and a blocked shot. Heard said he played well and added: "If he's playing well, you let him stay on the court."

Defense clearly concerns Heard the most, and he used the past two games to illustrate its importance. In Saturday's victory over the San Antonio Spurs on the road, the Wizards shot 41 percent in the first half and had a two-point lead. In their blowout loss to the Jazz, the Wizards shot 57 percent in the first half and had just a one-point lead.

"We didn't take Utah out of anything they were doing," Heard said. "The first half we shot the ball really well, so the game was close. We started missing shots [15 of 18 in the third quarter], and it just started snowballing. . . . No team is doing anything differently than what we say they're going to do. Utah has been doing the same thing for 15 years. We have to execute."

After making 42 of 81 shots and averaging 23.2 points in his previous five games, Richmond was 2 for 9 during the first three periods against the Jazz and had six turnovers for the game. The other outside shooter, backup small forward Tracy Murray, missed 7 of 8 shots for the game, and the Wizards missed all nine three-point tries.

"We've spoken to one another," Strickland said. "Everybody's frustrated. During that time, people may say some things. . . . We've got to stay together and get it done."

But the comments from Heard and the players have seemed especially tough.

"Hey," Strickland said, "it's life."

Wizards Note: Any fan who brings a new unwrapped toy to tonight's game will receive a ticket to a future game.