LANDOVER -- Although they're not among the league's elite teams, the Miami Heat still provides some of the more difficult backcourt matchup problems for the Washington Bullets. Particularly troublesome has been 6-foot-8 guard Steve Smith, who had hit 70 percent of his shots in the last two meetings between the teams -- both blowout wins by the Heat.
With little more to lose in a season of many losses, the Bullets gambled last night as Rex Chapman started alongside Calbert Cheaney in a backcourt with no true point guard. And for a half the strategy appeared to work, but the Heat responded with a strong second half for a 114-103 win before 11,444 at the USAir Arena.
It was the sixth win in seven games for the Heat, which was coming off a 96-85 win over the New York Knicks on Tuesday. Six players scored in double figures for Miami, led by Smith, who scored 26 points on 9-for-16 shooting from the field.
For the Bullets, Mitchell Butler had a career-high 26 points and Tom Gugliotta and Rex Chapman added 19 in a game where all five starters scored in double figures. But lack of rebounding would once again prove crucial for Washington, who were at a 29-9 disadvantage on the boards over the last two and a half quarters. Gugliotta, who missed four games with a sprained ankle, had 10 but there was little else for the Bullets.
"We've been badly out-rebounded all year," said Bullets coach Wes Unseld. "I played Gugliotta so many minutes  because I was hoping to get somebody to rebound."
With the exception of Marty Conlon (two points in 13 minutes), the Bullets went the entire game without a legitimate center on the court. Gugliotta started at center in place of Kevin Duckworth, who did not play. Also not getting any action was Gheorghe Muresan, as well as point guards Brent Price and Doug Overton.
Instead, Unseld went with the smaller frontcourt and bigger back court. It was an idea suggested by assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik after the two previous Miami wins by a combined 63 points.
"Basically what happened was that when we played them the last two times we were out of the game at the end of the first quarter or the start of the second half," Unseld said. "We had to make a change. We hoped that by going with this bigger lineup, we wouldn't need to be double-teaming so often."
The strategy worked early, with the Bullets leading by as many as 11 midway through the second quarter, although the Heat closed to 57-52 by halftime. Still, Miami coach Kevin Loughery wasn't pleased by the effort in which Chapman and Cheaney outscored his backcourt of Smith and Brian Shaw, 21-12.
"I can handle losing a game, but I didn't want to leave this building having played two halves like we played the first," Loughery said. "I wasn't angry at the poor play, I was angry at the players for not demanding more effort out of each other."
By midway through the third quarter, Miami's effort was restored. Miami's first lead of the game came after a three-pointer by Shaw put the Heat up, 63-62. Later, after being tied at 70, the Heat ended the quarter with an 18-8 run for an 88-78 lead going into the final quarter. Washington had just three rebounds in the third quarter.
And even though the Bullets hit nine of their 14 shots in the fourth, Washington was never able to pose a serious threat. Balance among key players helped Miami -- of the seven players on the court for more than 20 minutes, six hit 50 percent of their shots or better. Glen Rice added 21 and Grant Long 17 for the Heat, who were without center Ron Seikaly (sprained right ankle).
Just nine games remain for the Bullets, who are looking at their third straight season of fewer than 30 wins. That can still be avoided, but it's unlikely with six of those games against probable playoff teams.