Entering home stretch, Bullets skidding Three-game losing streak part of road baggage

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOWIE -- Forget that it had been nearly three years since the Washington Bullets had posted at least two wins on any extended road trip. Or that winning two of five games on a West Coast trip is considered a success for many teams. Juwan Howard came off the just-completed 2-3 road trip upset.

"We went 2-3 on a road trip that we expected to go 5-0," Howard said. "I kind of got used to winning. And I don't want us to get on a losing stretch like we were last year."

So the Bullets (12-13), who last week posted a five-game winning streak for the first time since 1988, look to get back to .500 and break a three-game losing streak tonight when they play the Golden State Warriors at USAir Arena.

All season coach Jim Lynam has stressed the importance of winning at home, and the Bullets have responded with an 8-4 record. Four of Washington's next five games will be at home, and the team is hoping to reach the .500 level and go beyond.

"For us to get into the playoffs, we need to protect home court as much as possible and steal some games on the road," guard Robert Pack said. "We realize the importance of doing well in this stretch."

If the Bullets are successful during the stretch, which includes home games against the Warriors, the New York Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Dallas Mavericks, it will put the team in good shape for the return of Mark Price. The injured point guard, who has missed the entire season after having surgery to repair a tear on the sole on his left foot, has begun to shoot and run and could return to practice as early as next week.

"I've picked up my workout, I'm running a little more, and I'll go to the doctor [today] to see what my next step should be," Price said. "Next week I'm hoping to start practicing a little bit."

Earlier this month, general manager John Nash expressed hope that Price could return for the Jan. 10 game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Price said he doesn't think that return date is realistic, but a return in late January would put him well ahead of the initial reports that had him coming back by the All-Star break in February.

"We've got to be careful not to come back too quick, and to make sure everything's healed up before I go after it," Price said. "I was working out in Atlanta and I got a little sore just pushing off and trying to run on it. I won't call it a setback, but it's the first time I had done something to make it sore. I think it's going to take me a couple of weeks of practice before I'm ready to play. I'll have to see how it responds."

Tonight's game will be the first and only scheduled appearance on national television for the Bullets this season. It's not that there's suddenly a demand to see the improved team, just the simple fact that every NBA team -- even the Vancouver Grizzlies -- has to make a scheduled appearance.

Though the Bullets are improved, there's still the stigma of them being a losing franchise. They can make a good impression on a national audience tonight.

"You want to perform well on national TV because this team doesn't get too many," Pack said. "At the same time you can't get caught up in it, because it can throw you off. You do want to play well and prove to the people that don't get to see us that we're for real."

Lynam said he doesn't have too many complaints about the way his team has performed for the first part of the season.

"We're one of the top field goal percentage shooting teams [actually, the league's best at 50.0 percent], and our team

defense has been respectable," Lynam said. "Our job is to keep those two things where they are, and if we do, we can take the next step and starting winning some close games [seven of Washington's losses have been by six points or less]."

NOTES: Calbert Cheaney (sore lower right leg) is doubtful. He was injured Saturday against Seattle. "I felt a pain from my knee down to my ankle and I thought I broke a shin," Cheaney said. "I was real scared. But luckily I drink my milk every day.". . . . If Cheaney's unable to go, Lynam said he won't be tempted to start Tim Legler, the league's best three-point shooter at 54 percent. "I kind of like what he gives us off the bench," Lynam said.

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