LANDOVER -- The Seattle SuperSonics were the hottest team in the league, winners of 14 straight -- and 23 of 25 -- before last night. In addition to that streak, they had beaten the Washington Bullets 13 straight times, dating to 1989.
But the Sonics were playing without their top player, all-star forward Shawn Kemp. And that was all the opening the Bullets needed.
Seattle came into the game with the second-best defense in the league, but it was the Bullets who limited the Sonics to just 29.8 percent shooting and Washington went on to a 99-88 win before a sellout crowd of 18,756 at USAir Arena.
The win was the third straight for the Bullets (27-33), who picked up a half-game on the idle Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat, who rank eighth and nine, respectively, in the Eastern Conference. Washington is just a game behind Miami (28-32) and two games behind the Hornets (28-30). Only eight teams from each conference make the playoffs. TC "It's more important than satisfying," Bullets coach Jim Lynam said after the win. "We're below the eighth spot and we literally need every win we can get our hands on."
And the Bullets were able to take advantage of a huge gift. Kemp was out, having sprained his foot against the Boston Celtics on Friday. And the Sonics, playing their fourth game of a five-game East Coast swing, were coming off a draining double-overtime thriller over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday.
The result was a flat Seattle effort in which not a single player shot better than 50 percent. Gary Payton scored a team-high 26 points, but was 10 of 22 from the field. Detlef Schrempf added 21, but managed to hit just five of 17 shots. It didn't help the Sonics that 11 of their shots were blocked (Rasheed Wallace had four and Jim McIlvaine three).
"For fans to pay $60 to watch that is an embarrassment," said Seattle coach George Karl, who didn't have to watch it in its entirety after getting ejected with 5: 31 left in the game. "I don't think anyone understood what was going on out there."
Even a clueless Seattle team still was able to make it a game, despite falling behind by as many as 22 points midway through the third quarter. Trailing 78-61 after three quarters, the Sonics opened the fourth with a 12-3 run and, after two free throws Payton with 7: 08 left, had pulled within 81-73.
Anyone who has watched the Bullets knows that no lead is safe. Before the recent road trip, the Bullets had 17-point leads in back-to-back games against the Hornets, only to lose both times.
So during the Seattle run Juwan Howard, who was on the bench for much of it, checked back into the game and immediately gathered his teammates for a quick pep talk. And a short time later, after Payton's two free throws got Seattle within eight, the Bullets scored six straight points to put the game out of reach.
"I told the guys the lead was decreasing and we had to hang tough," Howard said. "I told them to stay with it and build on it. It seemed like the team was getting lackadaisical out there, and that allowed them to creep back."
But even the Sonics weren't good enough to creep back all the way in this game. The best team in the Western Conference (46-13) lost for the first time since a 103-100 loss in Dallas on Feb. 1. Kemp, who is averaging 20.5 points and 12.0 rebounds, watched in a tan suit after playing 20 minutes in Cleveland the night before.
"Yes, Kemp not being here made a difference," Lynam said. "But they're a team with a lot of character, even without Kemp."
The Bullets won with a balanced scoring attack, with Howard and Calbert Cheaney each scoring 21. Howard also contributed 11 rebounds and seven assists. But it's no coincidence that the Bullets have put together three straight wins with Cheaney playing well. The shooting guard has averaged 22.3 points in the three games, scoring more than 20 points each time.
"The last two games out west he played well, and he just kept it going," Lynam said. "We need Calbert to play like that, plain and simple."
And the Bullets need to play like they did last night if they want to remain in playoff contention. Last night was the start of three straight home games, with the team playing host to the Los Angeles Clippers tomorrow night and the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday.
"We have to keep it going," Howard said. "This is our home court and we can't let anyone take any games away from there."
NOTES: Howard has been named national spokesman of the Reading Is Fundamental program. Howard replaces Shaquille O'Neal, who during last year's playoffs misspelled the word "period" during an interview session. . . . Robert Pack was examined by a team doctor last night and is hopeful to begin practicing Tuesday.
Pub Date: 3/07/96