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Timberwolves chop down fading Bullets, 96-87

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LANDOVER -- The Washington Bullets managed to score only 87 points last night against the Minnesota Timberwolves, one of the NBA's more generous teams.

But a struggling offense, minus the team's two best outside shooters -- Rex Chapman and Don MacLean -- was not what troubled Bullets coach Jim Lynam the most after his team's fifth straight setback, 96-87, before a capacity crowd of 18,756.

"Our defense killed us," Lynam said after his team's 12th loss in 14 games. "Without Chapman and MacLean, we have trouble scoring 90, let alone 100. We're missing some points, but that's no excuse for the defense breaking down. They were much more aggressive defensively than we were after we got off to a quick [22-13] start.

"We let them get back in the game by not getting back on defense. They got some dunks, and they fed on that enthusiasm. It showed up in our game turnovers [17] and their steals [10]. That was the main difference."

The Bullets' sloppy play on both ends of the floor was particularly damaging in a critical fourth-quarter stretch.

Minnesota held a precarious 73-70 lead after three quarters. But it ballooned to 84-74 with 7:20 left when reserve forward Pat Durham, who was playing for Rapid City in the Continental Basketball Association two weeks ago, hit a three-pointer to beat the 24-second clock and followed with a layup.

Washington (6-13) got the crowd in the game by answering with jumpers by Calbert Cheaney and Scott Skiles. But then everything turned sour.

The next five Bullets possessions on the stat sheet read: "[Mitchell] Butler bad pass," "Skiles loses ball," "Skiles bad pass," "[Chris] Webber loses ball" and "[Juwan] Howard bad pass."

By the time this self-destructive stretch ended with three minutes left, the Timberwolves had gained a commanding 92-80 lead, enough to assure a second straight win for new head coach Bill Blair.

"Yes, I've got to be encouraged," said Blair, a longtime Bullets assistant during Wes Unseld's reign. "We've been playing much harder since December started.

"We got solid efforts from Doug West [25 points], Christian Laettner[19 points, eight rebounds] and Isaiah Rider [22 points]. But it was our bench guys -- Chris Smith and Durham -- who gave us a big lift in the fourth quarter."

Smith, a former Connecticut star, scored only two points, but dished out six assists. Durham scored 11 points in 17 minutes.

The Bullets, led by Webber's 21 points and 10 rebounds, were only effective when they were able to run. Their halfcourt game again suffered from poor perimeter shooting.

Cheaney, in the throes of a slump, made only four of his first 14 shots en route to a 15-point night.

"He was the guy we were worried about," said Blair, "but West has been shutting everybody down lately."

The Bullets built their early lead on layups and dunks, with former Michigan teammates Webber and Howard enjoying the fast tempo. But once the pace slowed, the Bullets had few options.

"We've got to push the ball," said Butler, who scored 14 points in a reserve role. "That's where Chris and Juwan feel more comfortable, beating guys down the floor."

It was West and Rider, two acrobatic players, who were consistently beating the Bullets downcourt.

Rider, who spent a brief time in Blair's doghouse, reserved his trash-talking last night for the Bullets and their frustrated fans. "We've got a better team than our record shows," said the former Nevada-Las Vegas star. "We're tired of losing, but we've come a long way in a short time."

The holiday schedule is anything but cheerful for the Bullets, who face a three-game western swing with stops in Phoenix, Sacramento and Golden State.

"This road trip is critical," said Butler. "We have to start winning, establish an identity and change our attitude."

Skiles was more succinct. "It's important for us to win no matter where we play," he said.

NOTES: Chapman tested his sore groin muscle in a shoot-around before the game and said "it's getting better, but it's still two or three days off." Chapman, the Bullets' leading scorer, has missed five straight games. . . . Center Kevin Duckworth sat out with a sore Achilles' tendon. . . . The injury-depleted Wolves picked former Bullets center Greg Foster off the waiver wire after he was released by the Chicago Bulls last week. Foster was ejected in the second quarter after a shoving match with the Bullets' Howard.

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