LANDOVER -- Although the players wouldn't say so, last night's game against the Indiana Pacers was a make-or-break moment for the Washington Bullets.
Just before the team took the floor, Juwan Howard offered advice to his teammates.
"I was one of the guys who stressed before the game, 'Let's get on a nice roll, and let's start tonight,' " Howard said. "We just have to have that confidence."
The confidence was there. Howard backed up his talk with a near triple double and the Bullets parlayed it into perhaps their best game in nearly a month in a 108-87 victory before a sellout crowd at USAir Arena.
For the Bullets (25-30), it was just the third win in their past 12 games. But it was important because they were able to pick up a full game on Indiana (25-29), a team ahead of them in the standings.
"Whenever we can blow somebody out, it's good for us as a team," said Tracy Murray, who scored 19 points in 30 minutes off the bench for the Bullets. "We were able to lighten up a little bit. We've been playing so tight all year because of the high expectations."
Loose comes easily when you lead by as many as 29 points by the third period, as the Bullets did last night. Howard, coming off a nine-point, two-rebound game on Sunday against the Detroit Pistons, finished with 28 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in 41 minutes.
"I truly took the blame [for Sunday's loss] because I was tired, worn out," said Howard, who benefited from the day off Bernie Bickerstaff gave the team on Monday. "Against Detroit, I didn't play well. It feels good to come out and redeem myself and show I'm making up for the last game. I apologize to everyone for not stepping up and being consistent on Sunday."
Howard wasn't the only story, however.
Murray hit three of four three-point tries. Rod Strickland had 17 points and eight assists. And Chris Webber, despite foul trouble that limited him to 18 minutes, grabbed 10 rebounds, all in the first half.
"It was fun being a part of the tone-setters at the start," Webber said. "We were bumping those guys, putting elbows in them and trying to get them out of their game."
Bickerstaff stressed physical play because the Pacers' front line nTC of Antonio Davis, Dale Davis and Rik Smits can dominate. That front line combined for just 10 rebounds, however. And the Pacers were out-rebounded 48-31.
"Our front line was sleepwalking, and [the Bullets] dominated as a result," Indiana coach Larry Brown said disgustedly.
The Bullets also did a good job defending Reggie Miller, Indiana's leading scorer at 21.8 points a game (13th in the league).
With Calbert Cheaney shadowing him, Miller hit just four of 12 shots and scored 14.
"I tried not to go for the shot fakes, and it's hard not to," said Cheaney, who also scored 15. "He's so good at getting his shot off. We did a good job switching and making it tough for him."
Bickerstaff said: "You don't stop the great ones, you make it harder. You know we made a mistake the other night and we said, 'Let's make Michael [Jordan] be great.' And we did."
For the Pacers, one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference in recent years, it was the sixth loss in their past eight games. Smits (14) was the only other Pacer to score in double figures.
"They took us out of everything we want do," Brown said. "Their effort was much better than ours. They executed great. They defended great. That was more impressive to me than the offense."
Now the Bullets only have to do that on a consistent basis to try to get back into the playoff race.
"[Murray] was good -- tonight," Bickerstaff said. "It's about consistency and performance collectively, and it's not just directed at Tracy. We want to be consistent."
Pub Date: 2/26/97