Price era gives Bullets wake-up call Vet's deft passes teach teammates to stay alert


BOWIE -- Mark Price delivered a blind pass from 20 feet away with such pinpoint precision that Washington Bullets teammate Mitchell Butler was caught completely off-guard. Butler wound up catching the pass in Wednesday night's victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, but proceeded to shoot an air ball from underneath the basket.

"He made some passes that a lot of guys who have been playing in a lot of games just couldn't do," Butler said yesterday. "That one play, I was so surprised that the ball slipped out of my hand. It's a lot of fun playing with him, and he's going to make a lot of guys better."

It almost could be said that a second Bullets season began when Price made his season debut in the 98-93 win over the 76ers. Price's line: 20 minutes, five points, four assists. He'll play for the first time in front of the home fans tonight if the game against the Sacramento Kings goes off as expected.

Although he's far from the form that made him a four-time All-Star with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Price won't need long to regain it, his teammates said.

"I think he's going to be great," Bullets forward Juwan Howard said. "Just give him a little time. He's going to be the same old Mark Price."

It was only after finding out that Robert Pack (sore right leg; placed on the injured list yesterday) would miss his second straight game that Price made the decision to play Wednesday morning. While general manager John Nash had said nearly a month ago that the game against the 76ers would be a possible return date, Price disagreed.

But seeing an opportunity to win a game against a struggling team, Price took to the court for the first time since last season, when he missed 34 games.

"It felt great to get out and play, I've been itching to do it," Price said. "I was surprised I was able to get out there and help the team a bit. Hopefully, it'll continue to get better. If it does, I'll be pleased."

Price, who only Sunday took part in an extensive practice, was lacking the shooting touch that has him ranked sixth among active players in three-pointers made going into the season (he hit just one of five three-pointers). But he did make a key three-pointer with 1:30 left that helped stave off a late Philadelphia rally.

"He's a very cool, collected, calm guy," Butler said. "The first thing I noticed about him when he got in the game was that he was very relaxed. I think he brings a great leadership quality and an ability to pass the ball that is second to none in this league.

"Robert Pack has one dimension for this team, which is a lot of energy and a lot of power," Butler added. "It will be good to see Mark come in with a little bit more control, a little more leadership. Not to say that Robert doesn't have it, but Mark is more even-keel."

The fact that Pack is injured keeps coach Jim Lynam from making the difficult decision of dividing playing time. Still, Price will be brought along slowly with younger brother Brent Price starting tonight.

"I emphasize 'gradually' because I don't want to overdo this, either in practice or games," Lynam said.

And Mark isn't eager to play increased minutes -- yet.

"You want to play, but I want to be careful at this stage," Price said. "I don't want to have a major setback at this point. I'm not in any hurry to play 35 minutes."

A fierce competitor, Price did have a bit of fun during the game and fulfilled a longtime goal -- playing on the floor with Brent for the final 30 seconds.

"That was kind of a dream come true to be out there at the same time," Mark said. "We were both laughing when we were checking in 'Mark Price for Brent Price' or 'Brent Price for Mark Price.' It was fun."

Bullets tonight

Opponent: Sacramento Kings

Site: USAir Arena, Landover

Time: 7:30

TV/Radio: HTS/WTEM (570 AM)

Outlook: The Bullets return home after three straight games on the road and face a Sacramento team that is second in the Pacific Division (19-11) but has lost two straight. Rookie G Tyus Edney (11.3 ppg, 5.5 apg) missed the Boston game Wednesday with a sprained ankle and is day-to-day. G Mitch Richmond (22.2 ppg) and former Maryland F Walt Williams (15.2 ppg) are the top scorers for the Kings. The Bullets have won seven of their past eight at home. Neither F Chris Webber (strained left shoulder) nor G Robert Pack (sore right leg) will play. This is the first meeting of the season between the teams, who split two games last season.

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