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Bullets learn a lesson, hold off Bucks, 95-93 Defense pays early, late; teams tied in standings


LANDOVER -- When the Milwaukee Bucks last played at USAir Arena, Vin Baker and Glenn Robinson combined for 80 points -- a thought Washington Bullets forward Juwan Howard couldn't shake going into yesterday's game.

"We remember," Howard said. "That sticks to your mind. You come out and remember that, and come out with a better mind-set not to let that happen."

And the Bullets didn't let it happen again, holding Robinson and Baker to a combined 27 points en route to a 95-93 win before a sellout crowd of 18,756. It was a rare close win for the Bullets, victorious in a game decided by three points or fewer for just the second time.

The Bullets led by as many as 10 several times in the fourth quarter, the last time coming after Howard (20 points, nine rebounds) scored on a short jumper with 9: 10 left.

However, the Bucks came back and took a 93-92 lead on a jumper by Ray Allen with 1: 07 remaining. The Bullets went ahead 94-93 on two free throws by Calbert Cheaney (15 points), then made three defensive stops for the win.

After Milwaukee's Armon Gilliam and Washington's Rod Strickland missed shots, Allen turned the ball over to Strickland, then fouled him with 6.1 seconds remaining. Strickland hit the first of two free throws for a two-point lead, and Allen missed a 14-foot baseline jumper as time expired.

"I thought the guys played well, and I thought the key was the way we played defensively down the stretch," Bullets coach Bernie Bickerstaff said. "I think if you are going to have success as a basketball team, you have got to get it done defensively."

There are more than 30 games left in the season, but this was all but a must win for the Bullets, who entered the game in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, a game behind the ninth-place Bucks.

In winning, the Bullets pulled even with Milwaukee, both teams leaving with 24-27 records.

"If we want to make the playoffs, we have to win," Bullets forward Tracy Murray said. "Not just this game, but every game we play we must have a sense of urgency."

Yesterday, that sense of urgency came without Chris Webber (strained back) and Tim Legler (strained knee). Webber ran up and down the court several times yesterday and is likely to play tomorrow in Detroit. Legler, who hurt his knee Saturday night against New Jersey, is likely to miss three weeks.

The Bullets should be particularly applauded for the job done on Baker and Robinson. Baker, an All-Star this year, hit just six of 15 shots and scored 15 points -- far below the 36 he scored here Dec. 7.

Robinson, who scored 44 in that game, finished with 12 yesterday. He made just five of 14 shots and played just two minutes in the fourth quarter, finally checking back into the game with four seconds left as the Bucks tried to tie -- or win -- the game.

"That happened to be the best combination at the time and they had momentum," Robinson said about sitting. "You have to respect the coach's decision."

That's a phrase that could be chanted in the Bullets' locker room, where -- with the exception of Saturday's loss at New Jersey -- the team has responded under Bickerstaff. Instead of being a two- or three-man team, the Bullets are showing more diversity on offense. Four of the five starters scored in double figures yesterday.

It's clear that Bickerstaff wants to have Gheorghe Muresan (15 points, nine rebounds) active at the start of games. The 7-foot-7 center took four of Washington's first five shots yesterday.

Bickerstaff said that, ideally, he wants Muresan to be a 30-minutes-a-game player. That's exactly what Muresan played yesterday.

"I can't play 50 minutes," Muresan said, when told that Bickerstaff will control his time. "If I play two or three games at 50 minutes, after I get to the playoffs, I die. I'd be too tired."

The way Bickerstaff has it planned, Muresan shouldn't be tired by playoff time. All the Bullets have to do now is get that far, and yesterday's win was a start.

"We're chasing the eighth spot, and [Milwaukee] was in front of us," Cheaney said. "So this win was big for us."

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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