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'New' Bullets give Knicks fight, but fall Their inspired debut for Bickerstaff ends in another N.Y. win, 97-92; Knicks 20-1 vs. Washington; Webber strains back late in up-down game


LANDOVER -- For years the Washington Bullets have been bullied by the New York Knicks. The Knicks would start the game with their usual pushing and shoving, and the cowering Bullets would be finished for the rest of the game.

Not last night, under new coach Bernie Bickerstaff. The Bullets hit back, and sometimes even hit first. And while they wound up losing the game, 97-92, the Bullets gave an indication that, indeed, there will be a different way about things over the second half of the season.

Still, that wasn't enough to end New York's recent dominance over the Bullets. Washington has now lost five straight against New York, 20 of the last 21 and 26 of the last 28. In fact, the only win over New York over the past four years was on a night last season when Knicks center Patrick Ewing didn't play.

Ewing, who missed the last four games leading to the All-Star break, did play last night. And his two baskets in the final 42 seconds -- a double-clutch layup and a baseline jumper -- sealed the win for the Knicks, who completed a four-game season sweep of the Bullets.

"He made some great shots, and Harvey [Grant] was all over him," Bickerstaff said of Ewing, who scored a team-high 18 points. "That is what you're supposed to do, and that's why he is an All-Star."

The reason Ewing was making his shots over Grant was that Chris Webber strained his back with 6: 55 left in the fourth quarter. Grabbing a loose ball, Webber, shifted awkwardly when the Knicks' Larry Johnson stepped on his foot.

Webber lay in pain for several minutes, and went to the locker room. He came back to the bench with 2: 45 left and attempted to play. But it was clear he was in pain, and Webber soon left for good. He will be evaluated today.

At the start of the game it was Webber's play that fueled the Bullets as he scored 12 points in the opening quarter. The Bullets, perhaps on an emotional rush playing under a new coach, started the game by scoring the first 10 points and led by as many as 12. The Bullets were getting to the basket with so much ease that New York coach Jeff Van Gundy, after a layup by Webber, yanked all five of his starters out of the game.

"I don't know if I was sending a message," Van Gundy said. "I didn't like the way we were playing. It was a dunkfest. I wanted to change the energy level."

By the end of the quarter the Bullets had 32 points -- matching the total points of the first half of a 95-79 loss in New York on Jan. 20. As the Bullets walked to their bench with a 32-22 lead at the end of the quarter, the fans gave the team a standing ovation.

"It was not just us being not good, they were great," Van Gundy said. "They were energized, and I think change does that."

In the second quarter, the Bullets got another emotional lift when Tim Legler checked into the game with 9: 04 left. For Legler, it was his first minutes since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last April. His first shot attempt, a running jumper, hit all net.

"When I first got out there, I was a little tentative," Legler said. "But once I got on the court, everything felt fine."

But there were signs in the second quarter that the adrenalin rush was fading and the Bullets were unable to sustain their 65.2 percent shooting in the opening quarter. They took only a 54-52 lead into halftime as Allan Houston scored the final six points for New York -- including a basket with two seconds left.

By the end of the third quarter, the Bullets -- missing six straight free throws over the final 3: 32 -- trailed by seven points. It was the Knicks who were now dictating style, holding the Bullets to 11 third-quarter points. And no one felt it more than Webber who, when he scored on a layup with 10: 37 left in the game, ended a scoreless drought of 28 minutes.

Even after Webber went down, the Bullets got back into the game. And when Grant scored on a tip-in with 31 seconds left, the Bullets trailed 95-92.

Ewing, who moments before scored on a tough, double-clutch layup, then sealed the win with a baseline jumper over Grant with 10 seconds left.

It was the fifth straight loss for the Bullets (22-26), but the team was a bit more pleased with how it battled New York. Rod Strickland scored 21 points to lead the Bullets, and Juwan Howard had 19. Legler scored nine points while playing 22 minutes.

"I think it was a push for a push, a shove for a shove," Legler said.

Added Grant: "Bernie is kind of like Wes [Unseld]. They hit you, you hit them back. I think he's going to be good for us."

The aggressive play, the added intensity on defense, the involvement of Gheorghe Muresan (4-for-5, 11 points) in the offense were all positive changes for the Bullets. But Bickerstaff realizes that things will not come together entirely in two days.

Still, he liked what he saw.

"I was proud of them, they did not quit and that is the danger of playing with emotion," Bickerstaff said. "Veteran teams like the Knicks play the same way all the time -- they're consistent. What we need to strive for is some kind of consistency in how you approach the game, how you play the game."

Pub Date: 2/12/97

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