Coach Gar Heard had tried to ignite the Washington Wizards, twice calling them "soft" before last night's game at MCI Center against the New Jersey Nets. He also benched center Ike Austin and gave former Georgetown star Jahidi White the first start of his two-year career.

It all worked, splendidly in fact. With White making 9 of 11 shots and Juwan Howard playing what Heard called "probably his best game all year," the Wizards rallied from a six-point deficit midway through the fourth quarter and scored a 108-104 victory before a crowd of 11,355 that included President Clinton.

"It was really great to see the guys step it up," Heard said after the Wizards (7-17) returned the Nets (6-17) to last place in the NBA's Atlantic Division and won for just the fourth time in 12 games at home. "I think they realized that if they played hard the fans will be behind us."

The surprises included White as an offensive force (his 19 points more than doubled his previous career high) and the Wizards making nearly 60 percent of their shots and still nearly losing. That's because the Nets made 11 three-point shots.

"The only way I know how to play is aggressive, hard," White said. "I want to keep doing that."

"Nothing against Ike," said power forward Michael Smith, "but Jahidi gave us a lot of energy at that spot."

White sensed he would start when he worked with the first unit during an hour-long shoot-around yesterday morning. Heard later informed him and Austin about the change separately. Heard said the decision "was the logical choice right now" and added that White would have stayed a starter had the team lost.

Austin was acquired during the offseason from the Orlando Magic for inside players Ben Wallace and Terry Davis and guards Tim Legler and Jeff McInnis in a move the Wizards hoped would greatly increase their chances of making the playoffs. However, he has not provided the low-post force Heard and other Wizards officials had hoped.

"It's no big deal," Austin said. "I've come off the bench in this league and I've started. . . . Eventually, there'll be a time he'll put me in [as a starter], I guess. If I deserve it."

The Wizards passed the Nets with a 9-0 run and took the lead for good, 100-98, on a 17-footer by Howard with 2 minutes 30 seconds left. This was during a long stretch in which he played power forward. Immediately after a 21-point loss to the Utah Jazz Tuesday, he had expressed frustration at having to play mostly small forward this season.

"Hopefully," Howard said last night, "the coach will look at the tape and make it a consistent thing."

White's power move and foul shot with 52 seconds left gave the Wizards a 105-99 lead. But a basket and three foul shots by Stephon Marbury and Rod Strickland's three missed free throws helped the Nets get to 105-104 with 15 seconds left.

But the Nets' Kerry Kittles missed a tough drive and Howard (12 of 20 from the field) sank two fouls shots after being smacked by Keith Van Horn during the scramble for the rebound.

The announcement of White during pregame introductions was greeted with modest applause. As Heard had hoped, White made an early impression.

Van Horn missed the first shot of the game and White grabbed the rebound. White had two more rebounds, also on defense, and hit both field goal tries during nine minutes of play in the first quarter.

The Wizards did as much as possible to encourage White, with Strickland (14 assists) once passing up an open eight-foot floater to feed White for a dunk.

Unfortunately for the Wizards, the Nets made an inordinate number of three-point shots, nine in just the first half. That helped them turn an early seven-point deficit into a 59-52 lead at the half.

Those threes countered the very good offensive play of Howard, who hit his first three field goal tries, all on post-ups against Van Horn.

The only Net to miss from three-point range in the first half was Kendall Gill, but he was 2 for 4. Kittles and backup guard Lucious Harris each hit a pair of threes and Van Horn, Scott Burrell and Murbury had one each as the Nets broke by one the record for three-pointers in a half by a Wizards' opponent.

White had two baskets early in the third quarter, one on a power move and dunk against Jim Mcllvaine low on the left baseline. But Marbury's open three from the right baseline enabled the Nets to keep a six-point lead midway through the third quarter.

But the Wizards wouldn't fold, and White showed more emotion than anyone could recall after that three-point play with just under a minute left.

"That overwhelmed me," he said. "I kind of got out of control."

CAPTION: Rod Strickland (17 points, 14 assists) gets the edge on Kendall Gill. The Wizards shot 59.5 percent from field, but only 50 percent from foul line.

CAPTION: Juwan Howard displays his soft touch for Coach Gar Heard, laying in the ball during 28-point, 7-rebound, 3-assist performance.

CAPTION: Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure: President Clinton and Capitals owner Leonsis enjoy the game from Wizards owner Abe Pollin's box at MCI Center.