LANDOVER -- They are the best team in the league, playing at a 70-win pace. Yet the Chicago Bulls, who have hammered all comers over the past two weeks, were trailing the injury-riddled Washington Bullets entering the final quarter yesterday.
The Bullets' performance had the sellout crowd at USAir Arena ** thinking the unthinkable. And that's when Michael Jordan stepped up to seize the moment.
Jordan, playing at USAir Arena for the first time since his baseball days, scored 17 of Chicago's last 19 points and finished with 46, as the Bulls defeated the Bullets, 116-109.
Jordan's performance came one game after he scored a season-high 48 against the Philadelphia 76ers, and it helped the Bulls win their eighth straight game and improve to 31-3, the third-best start in NBA history.
"I think I'm finally starting to get a good rhythm," said Jordan, the league's top scorer at 31.4. "I'm having great looks and I'm very comfortable. Right now, I feel good about my game."
And, for the most part, the Bullets actually came away feeling good about their effort despite losing their second straight game. One game after being picked apart by the expansion Toronto Raptors, the Bullets dictated the style of play most of the game. The main reason they stayed close was Brent Price, who, in a Mark Price-like performance, had a career-high 30 points and a season-high 13 assists.
Price was able to get his shot off with Jordan checking him much of the time.
"When you know from the start, you just have to get yourself mentally prepared," Price said. "I didn't want him to bully me, didn't want it to be physical. I tried to take advantage of being smaller and quicker."
It worked. In 39 minutes, Price made all six of his three-point shots and overall hit nine of 12 from the field. His previous scoring high was 22, against the Orlando Magic in 1992.
With Price doing damage from the outside, Gheorghe Muresan took care of the rest inside. The 7-foot-7 center scored 27 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, compensating for a rare off-game by Juwan Howard, who missed 13 of his 17 shots, finishing with 15 points and three rebounds.
"My shot was off, trust me," said Howard, adding that Dennis Rodman's defense was not the problem. "Sometimes, you have nights like that."
Jordan hasn't had many like that this season. He had 19 points in the first quarter and 25 by halftime. He didn't look for his shot much in the third, when he attempted two and went to the bench with 4:41 left. That was while the Bullets were in the midst of a 7-0 run and took their biggest lead of the game, 83-78, after a short jumper by Muresan with 3:44 left.
The Bullets had an 89-87 lead entering the final quarter and a chance. But Jordan was on the floor at the start of the fourth quarter, when the Bulls began to pick up their defense, holding the Bullets to four points over the first six minutes.
"They picked up their intensity, and we went from five up to five down like, 'bang!' " Bullets coach Jim Lynam said. "They got some easy transition buckets."
Such as the shot that set Jordan off. Stealing the ball from Price, Jordan raced up the court and launched himself from the dotted circle, cocking the ball over his right shoulder with two hands before dunking it.
It was the first of 13 straight points for Jordan, with the Washington fans cheering loudly after the shot. The Bulls would lead by as many as 13 en route to victory.
"It was great that they gave us a challenge in the third quarter," Bulls forward Scottie Pippen said. "I knew all we had to do was stay close and give Mike a chance."
And Jordan did the rest, although Lynam said he wasn't displeased with the way his team defended him.
"It sounds crazy, but I thought we did a good job," Lynam said. "He had to take 31 shots. We made him work, but he is such a bear down the stretch."
A bear who, according to Ledell Eackles, was treated with a great deal of gentleness by the officials.
"It just gets ridiculous sometimes when you can't touch him," said Eackles, who guarded Jordan much of the game and fouled out. "Sometimes, the refs give him a little extra."
Maybe a little. But Jordan has earned it, which is why the Bullets didn't seem too down after giving the best team in the league a game for much of the afternoon.
"Considering we didn't have all of our guys, we gave it a battle," Lynam said. "We just have to keep our heads up."
NOTES: Bullets G Calbert Cheaney, who has missed the past 11 games with a strained right ankle, could be back for tomorrow's game in Miami. . . . Bullets F Chris Webber said his left shoulder is still sore but he hopes to return for Friday's game at the Baltimore Arena against the New Jersey Nets. . . . Rodman had 15 rebounds, seven offensive, to help the Bulls to a 46-26 advantage. . . . The Bullets have lost to Chicago 24 times in their past 29 games.