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Bullets warm, but fall to Heat Booed Howard hits 23, but rally from 22 back comes up short, 98-95

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MIAMI -- As much as Juwan Howard wanted to treat last night's meeting with the Miami Heat as any other game, he knew it was unlikely. Among Miami fans he might be the least-liked player in the NBA, which is why a three-man security team escorted the Washington Bullets forward to the playing floor for pre-game warm-ups.

Booed throughout the game because he spurned the Heat last summer, Howard did not let the crowd affect him, scoring 23 points and grabbing eight rebounds. And if the crowd affected the Bullets early, it didn't in the fourth quarter, when the team fought back from a 22-point deficit only to fall short, 98-95.

The loss ended the Bullets' season-high four-game winning streak. But the team had a lot of positives to take out of the game, with an impressive comeback that put it in a position to win in the final 10 seconds.

The Bullets appeared completely out of it at the start of the quarter, when they trailed 77-60. And it got no better early in the fourth quarter, when the Heat had its biggest lead, 82-60, and the sellout crowd going wild.

But instead of folding, the Bullets scrapped back, clawing within 97-95 on Chris Webber's three-pointer from the top of the key with 36 seconds left.

To give themselves a chance to win, the Bullets needed a defensive stop. And when Alonzo Mourning (32 points, 12 rebounds) missed a 16-foot jumper with 11 seconds left, Webber soared high to secure the rebound and the Bullets called a timeout.

That gave Washington a chance to tie the game or go for the win. They went for the win, but Webber, with Mourning in his face, missed a three-point attempt.

"He got a look not quite as good as I would have hoped," Bullets coach Jim Lynam said.

Mourning grabbed the rebound, was fouled and hit one of two free throws with one second left for a 98-95 lead. After calling another timeout, Howard tossed an inbounds pass to Tracy Murray, but his off-balance, 35-foot attempt was well off the mark.

With all the hoopla that surrounded the return of Howard -- who signed with the Heat last summer, only to have the NBA void his contract and allow him to re-sign with Washington -- the game at the Miami Arena may have been the most intense the Bullets have faced this season, in terms of atmosphere. Miami's second-quarter defense was definitely the most intense that the Bullets have faced this year, as Washington scored just 11 points (a season low) on the way to trailing at the half, 49-33.

If Howard was at all bothered by his surroundings last night, he certainly didn't show it early in the game. He scored Washington's first two baskets, and was 5-for-5 from the field in the first quarter.

"It wasn't the game plan to go to Juwan early," Howard said afterward. "I'm not going out there to prove anything to anyone. Truly, I wanted to play well tonight. I wanted the whole team to play well."

But the early minutes also revealed a problem that wouldn't go away for the Bullets, namely Mourning, who last season scored a career-high 50 points against them.

With 8: 34 left in the first quarter, Bullets center Gheorghe Muresan already was on the bench with three fouls. And Mourning pretty much had his way on the way to scoring 11 dTC points (hitting four of five shots from the field).

Still, the Bullets led by seven points, that coming after two free throws by Howard (12 points in the quarter) made it 16-9 with 5: 09 left. But over the final three minutes the Heat outscored the Bullets 9-2 to take a 24-22 lead.

The Bullets tied the game at 26 in the opening minute of the second quarter, on a jumper by Howard. But that would be the last field goal of the half for Howard, who would end up with 14 points.

Over the next eight minutes the Heat -- who going into last night had held opponents to a league-low 41.8 percent shooting -- limited the Bullets to just one field goal. Washington was outscored 14-2 during that span and the Heat, after a dunk by Mourning with 3: 41 left, had a 40-28 lead.

Lorenzo Williams, who also would finish the half with three fouls, ended the scoring drought with a dunk with 3: 14 left. But with the Bullets paying so much attention to Mourning in the post, the other Miami players often were left wide open for easy shots.

"The difference in the game was that they made a ton of threes (nine of 18)," said Lynam.

Mourning had 19 points in the first half, Tim Hardaway (who would finish with 28) added 15 and the Heat had a 49-33 halftime lead.

The Bullets made a run at the start of the third, opening with an 11-4 run and cutting the lead to single digits, 53-44, after a jumper by Calbert Cheaney with 9: 01 left.

Bullets tonight

Opponent: Chicago Bulls

Site: United Center, Chicago

Time: 8: 30

TV/Radio: HTS/WWRC (980 AM)

Outlook: After last night's tough loss in Miami, the Bullets face the best team in basketball. Chicago (31-4) has a six-game winning streak and is 17-1 at the United Center. G Michael Jordan (30.5 ppg) is the league's top scorer, F Dennis Rodman (16.5 rpg) is the league's top rebounder, and F Scottie Pippen (19.5 ppg) may very well be the most versatile player in the league. C Luc Longley has been activated from the injured list after being out with a dislocated shoulder. The Bullets have lost their last six against Chicago.

Pub Date: 1/14/97

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