Defense is keeping Cavaliers hot

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Washington Bullets' week started with a game against the league's best team. Now it's on to the NBA's hottest.

That's the Cleveland Cavaliers, who take a league-best nine-game winning streak into tonight's game against the Bullets at the new Gund Arena in downtown Cleveland.

Washington might get center Kevin Duckworth (sore Achilles' tendon) back to its injury-depleted lineup tonight. Guard Rex Chapman, who has missed eight of Washington's past nine games, is out tonight. But the Bullets aren't the only team hit hard by injuries.

Cleveland center Brad Daugherty, who had surgery Dec. 5 to remove two herniated disks in his spine, hasn't played this season and probably won't return until next season. Guard Gerald Wilkins ruptured his right Achilles' tendon in the preseason and probably will be out the rest of the season. Those were factors in the Cavaliers' slow start, but Cleveland hasn't lost since Dec. 7, 90-75 to the Orlando Magic.

Cleveland's statistics are not overwhelming. The offense is averaging 93.3 points -- lowest in the NBA except for the Minnesota Timberwolves'. And guard Mark Price says that he'd rather be running than playing in the team's deliberate, walk-it-up-the-floor offense.

But you can't argue with the results, and Cleveland is getting its results with a defense that allows 88.2 points a game -- the only team in the league holding opponents to fewer than 90 points.

The Bullets are reaching for positives from the 128-121 overtime loss to the Magic on Monday. Against the league's best team, the Bullets came through with their second-highest scoring total of the season.

Rookie forward Juwan Howard was unfazed by the Magic, scoring a season-high 24 points and adding 14 rebounds while holding his own against veteran forward Horace Grant.

"I hope it continues," Howard said of his improvement. "I've just got to keep doing the little things."

The Bullets are falling short of the things that count -- namely victories. Against the Magic, they were looking to put together back-to-back wins for the first time since beating New Jersey and Miami on Nov. 11 and 12.

"It's going to take heart, mental toughness, and we've got to play hard from start to finish," Howard said. "It's tough playing without Chris Webber, without Duck, Rex and Don MacLean. That's a lot of scoring and key players. We have to play with a lot of effort."

BULLETS TONIGHT

Opponent: Cleveland Cavaliers

Site: Gund Arena, Cleveland

Time: 7:30

TV/Radio: Channel 20/WTEM (570 AM)

Outlook: After opening the season with a 9-8 record, the Cavaliers are the hottest team in the league with nine straight wins. G Mark Price (16.7 ppg) leads the team in scoring and F/C Tyrone Hill (13.0 ppg) is fourth in the league in rebounding (11.4). Washington has lost nine of its past 10 after Monday's defeat at home to the Orlando Magic. Cleveland defeated the Bullets, 96-94, on Nov. 25 at USAir Arena.

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