EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For Washington Bullets guard Rex Chapman, the shooting exhibition began 12 seconds into the third quarter with a three-pointer from the top of the key.
Then there was a three from the left corner. Swish.
When he followed that seconds later with a three-pointer from the right corner, Bullets coach Jim Lynam was experiencing a bit of deja vu on the sidelines.
"When he made the first couple of threes like that, the first thing that went through my mind was the Miami game," said Lynam, of the game on Nov. 12 when Chapman made a team-record eight three-pointers. "Then, he started raining threes before he got off the bus."
Chapman did everything for the Bullets yesterday, scoring a season-high 35 points and hitting a team-record five three-pointers in the third quarter as the Bullets defeated the New Jersey Nets, 109-103, before a sellout crowd of 20,049 at the Meadowlands Arena.
The Bullets have back-to-back wins for the first time since Nov. 11 and 12, when they beat New Jersey and Miami on consecutive nights. More importantly, the Bullets won their second straight against an Atlantic Division foe, a must for Washington if it wants to crawl back into playoff contention.
Playoffs, you say? For a team that has the second worst record in the Eastern Conference and is last in the Atlantic Division? Don't laugh. Some of the sorriest basketball the NBA has to offer is being played in the Eastern Conference right now, and the Bullets are within 4 1/2 games of the Milwaukee Bucks, whose 15-23 record would be good for the eighth and final playoff spot if the season ended today.
"Right before the [Jan. 13] Indiana game, we had 50 games left and we had seven wins, and I thought we had to win 30 of 50 games to have a chance," Scott Skiles said. "We've won three of four. It would be a great story if this team could come back. And I'm confident that we will."
It's possible if both Chris Webber and Don MacLean can recover from their injuries and fit into the lineup the way Chapman has. A sore groin muscle forced Chapman to miss 12 of 13 games from mid-December to the beginning of this month, and he appeared tentative when he came back at Atlanta on Jan. 6.
But Chapman has now scored more than 30 points in two of Washington's last three games. The team's only other 30-point game this season was back on Nov. 12, the night Chapman hit for his team-record eight three-pointers and scored 30 at Miami.
"We've done a lot more offensively the last six to eight games, and Chapman being back is a big part of that," Lynam said. "Just having him out there is a plus. It makes it tough to double inside."
Which opens things up for rookie forward Juwan Howard, who scored a career-high 27 points and outplayed Nets All-Star forward Derrick Coleman yesterday. Howard hit 13 of 20 shots, and helped contain Coleman, who had 23 points and nine rebounds.
Howard has become better at passing out of the double team, and that helped the Bullets hit 11 three-pointers yesterday, one shy of the team record of 12 set in the Miami game. After Washington's six three-pointers in the quarter forced the Nets to tighten up their perimeter defense, Howard got to go man-to-man against Coleman in the post. He hit six of nine shots in the second half, after hitting seven of 11 (15 points) in the first.
"It helps a lot," Howard said of having Chapman back. "His outside shooting opens it up for the inside. It works for everybody."
For Chapman, it's a matter of starting to feel comfortable again.
"Any time you miss a month, you're not going to come back right away," Chapman said. "I didn't lose my confidence. [Yesterday] I was just getting some good looks. Guys were moving the ball well."
Most notably Skiles, who had 19 points and 11 assists in 39 minutes. The Bullets also did a good job protecting the ball, recording five turnovers, one above their team record and two above the NBA record.
"It's hard to believe, five turnovers," Lynam said, catching his first glimpse of the stat sheet. "That's from another planet."
Over the last seven days the Bullets have won three games, and attitudes are beginning to change.
"We're starting to resemble the team we were at the beginning of the year," Skiles said. "The ball's moving around and guys are getting good looks."
NOTES: Sick of trade rumors and reports that he was unhappy, Coleman issued a statement saying he wants to play his entire career with the Nets. "I am committed to helping the New Jersey Nets win the NBA championship," he said.