There is no way to mask it. The Chicago Bulls are bad. Though hardly a team good enough to look down on anyone, the Washington Wizards are aware that if they defeat the hapless Bulls in their next two games, they'll move one step closer to mediocrity. For now, that's enough for Wizards Coach Gar Heard.

Chicago, winner of six NBA titles in the 1990s, gutted its championship team two seasons ago and boasts an assemblage of mediocre and first-year players.

Most of those players have contracts that expire after this season, allowing the Bulls salary cap room to pursue free agents such as San Antonio center Tim Duncan and Detroit forward Grant Hill next summer.

The decision to rebuild has been painful, especially this season when the Bulls (2-26) have not been close to competitive. Chicago has not won a game since Dec. 10--a 71-69 defeat of the New Jersey Nets. The only other victory came against Boston Nov. 13.

But with the Wizards playing at United Center in Chicago tonight and at MCI Center on Friday, it's a chance for a pair of victories. The keys for Washington to defeat the Bulls are simple: decent defense, no turnovers and not assuming the Bulls are incapable of winning.

"When we play aggressive team defense, like we did in the second half of [Monday night's victory over Golden State] we're a very good basketball team," Heard said. "Teams have problems scoring on us. A lot of times our offense creates problems for us because we turn it over so much, teams come down and get a lot of easy baskets. Things are kind of tied in with the two."

The Wizards have gotten 10 of their 11 victories when they've held an opponent under 100 points; they have held their past seven opponents under 100 and won four times. Two of their losses in that stretch were by a combined five points. For a team with enough offensive weapons, success hinges on defense.

"We've been giving better effort on the defensive end," Juwan Howard said.

He and backup small forward Tracy Murray were victimized for 17 points by Golden State's Antawn Jamison in the first half Monday night but rebounded to hold Jamison to four points on four shots in the second half.

"Also, Jahidi [White] adds something with his shot-blocking abilities," Howard said. "He's been very active. He's been the aggressor and he's been setting the tone defensively. Everybody's been applying pressure. We've just got to keep doing it on a consistent basis. We can't turn it on and turn it off, because that's what's going to win games for us."

Heard said the Wizards' defense is at its best when players, particularly the guards, pressure the ball.

"When you put pressure on the ball it makes it difficult to make plays," Heard said. "When we get in trouble is when we back off and let teams run their offense any way they want to do it. We just back off and they get right into their sets. We can't let that happen. Chicago is a good example. If we go out and put pressure on them and we don't let them make any entry passes, they could have a hard time scoring."

That's an understatement. Chicago is averaging 83 points per game, by far the worst in the NBA. The other 28 teams are averaging at least 90 points. The Bulls have scored 90 points or more just twice in their past 12 games.

Those numbers alone are enough to cause a letdown, even for Washington, which is last in the Atlantic Division, Heard said. However, the motivation of not being one of the Bulls' few victims should be enough to stem complacency among the Wizards, according to Heard.

Chicago has won once each month this season and is due to win again sometime. Also, both of its victories have been at home, where the Bulls still sell out nearly every game.

"This is a road game we should win," Heard said. "We have to start winning games to move up on other teams. We're not worried about the Bulls because they are below us. We have to try to move up on teams that are ahead of us and we have to use this game as a step."

Wizards Note: Guard Rod Strickland did not participate in yesterday's light practice because of a sore back.