LANDOVER -- Let's start with the good news for the Washington Bullets.
Guard Scott Skiles was back, after being banished to the bench for the final 40 minutes the previous night. Calbert Cheaney put together one of his better all-around games. And Rex Chapman was launching shots just like the Chapman of old, demonstrating that the groin muscle injury that sidelined him didn't make him bashful with the shot.
Now let's get back to reality and what's become the norm: The Bullets lost again last night, this time to the Portland Trail Blazers, 114-105, before a sellout crowd of 18,756 at USAir Arena.
For those doing the daily Bullets tally, that's six straight losses. Fifteen of their past 16. And a 7-23 record that matches the worst 30-game start in franchise history (the 1966-67 team started 7-23).
"We're trying to keep each other going," Cheaney said afterward. "It's no one person's fault. We just have to try to stay together as a team."
The Bullets can't pack it in now, not with almost two-thirds of the season yet to come. But a team that coach Jim Lynam thought was a playoff team before the Chris Webber trade doesn't appear close to righting any of its wrongs.
Yet again, an opposing point guard came through to burn the Bullets. This time, Rod Strickland stepped into the spotlight, scoring a career-high 31 points, handing off a game-high 11 assists and getting five rebounds for a Portland team that improved to 16-14.
"Rod Strickland's going to play in the All-Star Game," Lynam said. "He's a legitimate all-star player."
Clifford Robinson added 24 points for Portland, and Clyde Drexler, who last week told reporters in Portland that he wants to be traded, added 18.
Washington's big performer was Cheaney, who had 22 points, a career-high 11 rebounds and five assists. Cheaney has struggled with his shot all season and was shooting just 42.5 percent from the field going into last night. But with Chapman back in the lineup, Cheaney got his second straight start at small forward, and he wound up hitting nine of 18 shots.
"Without even looking at the numbers, I thought that might have been Calbert's best game of the season," Lynam said. "He was active, he was after it. That's what level we need him at."
They'll need Chapman at a level better than his 13-point performance last night. Chapman launched early and often -- by halftime he had put up 14 shots. In 22 minutes, he finished six of 18 from the field.
"He was active -- maybe he forced the action a little," Lynam said.
Said Chapman of the loss, "We just ran out of game. They made some runs at us and it just caught up to us."
Skiles, who like a lot of the Bullets was quick out of the locker room afterward, scored 15 points and had six assists in 29 minutes. The night before in Atlanta, Skiles played the first eight minutes and never returned, with Lynam calling the move a "coach's decision.
"That was a private matter," Lynam said, when asked whether the two spoke about Friday night.
Portland's lead was 92-76 going into the fourth quarter, and the ++ Bullets weren't a threat the rest of the way. Washington got within single digits after two free throws by Mitchell Butler with 50.6 seconds left, but that made it 114-105 and ended the scoring for the game.
The game was nowhere near that close. The Blazers led by as many as 19 in the fourth quarter.
The Bullets actually played a competitive first half, and trailed by just two points after a Butler layup with 2:45 left, but the Trail
Blazers finished the half with a 13-5 run.
With a 14-11 rebounding edge in the first quarter, the Bullets were able to generate a running game. But the Blazers controlled the boards after that, finishing with a 53-45 edge. Both teams had 19 offensive rebounds, but Portland had a 27-17 advantage in second-chance points.
"What hurt us was offensive rebounding," said Juwan Howard (11 points, seven rebounds). "They just killed us on the glass. We gave them too many second and third opportunities."
In addition to Cheaney's 11 rebounds, the other bright spot on the boards for the Bullets was Gheorghe Muresan, who started and had 12 points and a career-high 14 rebounds. Muresan, starting in place of the injured Kevin Duckworth (sore Achilles'), had struggled in recent weeks.
"Gheorghe was much better tonight," Lynam said. "His confidence hasn't been where it should be, but I was happy with his game [last night]."
Happy at a time when there hasn't been much to be happy about. But the team remains positive.
"We're not out of anything by any means," Chapman said. "We have to get some wins under us and make a run in February."