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Strickland stranger to early vacations Bullets: Washington's point guard faces the prospect of missing the playoffs for the first time in a nine-year career.

For all the problems he has had with coaches since entering the NBA, Rod Strickland has always been a winner.

From the time he was picked in the first round of the draft by the New York Knicks in 1988 through the turmoil of a year ago, when he was with the Portland Trail Blazers, Strickland has been in the playoffs in each of his eight years and has played in more postseason games (41) than the rest of his current teammates combined (15).

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So as the Washington Bullets' playoff chances keep fading, the days for Strickland get tougher.

"It's tough, there's no question," Strickland said. "I don't know when I've ever been under .500 at this point of the season."

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Going into tonight's game against the Indiana Pacers, the Bullets have dropped two straight and nine of their past 11. A team that went into the season loaded with talent finds itself with a record (24-30) identical to that of a year ago, when injuries decimated the club.

The Bullets can't beat the good teams (0-17 against clubs that are in first or second place in their divisions), and have been inconsistent against the bad ones (three of the four teams that are last in their divisions -- Vancouver, Toronto and Phoenix -- have beaten Washington).

But even with 28 games remaining, Strickland is not ready to give up on his postseason streak.

"You always have to be optimistic. You always have to believe you can turn this thing around," Strickland said. "And that's what we're trying to do, although it's a little frustrating. We're trying to get a winning streak together, to get back in this."

Strickland, averaging 16.5 points and 8.5 assists (seventh in the league), is doing his part. He scored 23 points and handed out nine assists against the defending NBA champion Chicago Bulls on Friday night, and it was his penetration that enabled the Bullets to stay close.

And against the Detroit Pistons on Sunday, Strickland took charge of a team giving a lackluster effort and at one point scored eight straight points to pull the Bullets within a point.

Despite standing just 6 feet 3, Strickland does a lot of his scoring inside, often challenging much taller opponents. It's a fearless style that has made coach Bernie Bickerstaff a longtime fan of the 30-year-old point guard.

"Rod doesn't have a problem getting his head in there, mixing it up to get rebounds," Bickerstaff said. "He's done a pretty good job taking over games. I don't think that Rod gets the respect that he deserves as a point guard."

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That was evident late in the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss to Detroit. With the Bullets trailing by seven points, Strickland backed Pistons guard Lindsey Hunter into the lane, then turned to take a shot.

As Strickland turned, Hunter fell. Earlier in the game, Detroit guard Grant Hill made a similar move and got a foul called in his favor. With Strickland, the official called an offensive foul.

"There [was] no difference what Grant did on the push-off, compared to what Rod got," Bickerstaff said. "And [Rod's] not just an average guy; he's a pretty good basketball player."

Strickland, perhaps the best player in the league to have never made an All-Star team, said he has never received the so-called "star" calls since he entered the NBA.

That's enough to discourage a player who drives to the basket with abandon and gets hit often, as Strickland does. So frustrated was Strickland about non-calls in a game against Detroit last Wednesday that he was ejected from the game.

"I've never gotten those calls, and I think sometimes being a small guy [the officials] say, 'He's down there, he has to take some of that contact' and just let it go," Strickland said.

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"There was a time [Sunday] when I took a shot and somebody was all up under me, and there was no call. I didn't understand it. But that's how it goes. I know when I go in there that I may not get the foul call."

Strickland has had differences with coaches in the past, but he had had no problem this season. In fact, Strickland has been a model citizen. He likes Bickerstaff, and many might be surprised that he even appreciates the increased discipline that the new coach has brought to the team.

"I think Bernie has come in and done a great job," Strickland said. "He has tried to give us some kind of structure, some kind of discipline. And he has tried to get us to become more patient.

"People have to understand that we've been playing one way all year," Strickland added. "It's not going to work overnight. There are no miracles here. What he's trying to do is great, and in the long run he's going to help us unbelievably."

The question is whether that help over the long run will come in enough time to help Strickland make a playoff appearance this season.

The Bullets' prospects aren't promising, but Strickland has not lost his confidence.

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"If we were going to lose confidence, I think we would have lost it early in the season when the fans were booing us," Strickland said. "I'm not worried about that, because we have a lot of tough-minded individuals around here.

"Guys on this team, we want to win, we want to compete, but it's been a struggle," Strickland added. "We, as a team, have to keep working, stay tough and stick together."

Bullets tonight

Opponent: Indiana Pacers

Site: USAir Arena, Landover

Time: 7: 30

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TV/Radio: HTS/WWRC (980 AM)

Outlook: The Bullets, 11th in the Eastern Conference (24-30), will try to gain a game on the ninth-place Pacers (25-28), who are 2-5 in their past seven games. The Pacers' struggles are the main reason they traded last week for G Mark Jackson, the league leader in assists (12.2), who played for Indiana last season. G Reggie Miller is Indiana's top scorer (21.8 ppg). Bullets F Chris Webber returned Sunday after missing five games with a strained back, scoring 19 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. F Harvey Grant (sprained right wrist) sat out Sunday but could play tonight. In the teams' first meeting, the Pacers prevailed, 103-100, on Nov. 9 in Indianapolis.

Pub Date: 2/25/97



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