LANDOVER -- With rookie sensation Juwan Howard on the bench with a sprained ankle for all but three ineffective minutes yesterday, the Washington Bullets figured to be in trouble.
Regular point guard Scott Skiles was sidelined with wrist and knee injuries and their 17-46 record (third-worst in the NBA) provided ample evidence of the Bullets' lack of depth. But on this day, Howard's injury, which is not believed to be serious, merely leveled the playing field.
The Cleveland Cavaliers brought a 36-27 record with them to the lTC USAir Arena -- along with an injury list that read like a "Who's Who" of the visitors' roster. Terrell Brandon, being groomed to succeed veteran Mark Price at point guard, was the only regular starter in coach Mike Fratello's opening lineup.
Center Brad Daugherty, guard Gerald Wilkins and forwards Tyrone Hill, John Williams and John Battle were missing because of a variety of ailments. Even considering the Cavs' superiority, the absence of Howard and Skiles merely balanced the scales.
It took a career game by Doug Overton and a solid second-half shooting performance by Rex Chapman for the Bullets to overcome a four-point deficit in the last 2 1/2 minutes. Chapman and Overton hit three-pointers in the span of 35 seconds to enable the Bullets to escape with a 96-90 win.
"They [the Cavaliers] really play hard together," Overton said after scoring a career-high 23 points. "They have a lot of injuries, but their guys step up and play. We can learn a lot from a team like that."
Overton in particular seemed to do just that yesterday. He did not commit a turnover in 39 minutes, hit all three of his attempts from three-point range and generally kept the Bullets' offense under control.
"He was a big factor; there's no question about that," Bullets coach Jim Lynam said of Overton's performance. "He hit his threes, especially a huge one late [with 52 seconds left]. And equally as important was that defensively he was guarding two terrific point guards [Brandon and Price].
"But we had a lot of people give us a boost," said Lynam. "Chris [Webber] had a big game [23 points and a game-high 14 rebounds]."
But Webber also had 10 turnovers, one short of Bob Dandridge's team record, and was able to score only one point in the final 12 minutes. That's when Overton (12) and Chapman (nine) took over, scoring all but five of the Bullets' 26 fourth-quarter points.
Losing a player like Howard could have been devastating for the Bullets, so Lynam was pleased with the way his club responded.
"I don't think you can dwell on that [the injury]," he said. "When a guy goes down, someone else is going to have to step up and play big minutes."
In addition to Chapman, Don MacLean did a good job coming off the bench. He logged 23 minutes in the first half, when he scored all 10 of his points.
The Bullets also got another workmanlike job from center Gheorge Muresan, who scored nine points while being limited to 21 minutes because of foul trouble. After Chapman's three-pointer with 1:27 left gave the Bullets the lead at 89-88, Muresan blocked a shot by Fred Roberts, leading to the three-pointer by Overton that was the decisive goal.
After a timeout, the Cavs got caught in a strategic blunder. They put the ball in play with six players on the floor, and it took six seconds before the Bullets were able to call it to the attention of the officials.
"To tell you the truth, I didn't know they had six out there," said Lynam. "Somebody started yelling, but I only counted five. Brandon was hiding in the corner."
Chapman made the technical foul called on the play, making the final ticks on the clock academic.
The Bullets leave today for the West Coast. They start a four-game trip in Portland tomorrow night. Lynam said he didn't expect Howard to practice today but thought he might not have to miss a game.