LANDOVER -- As the game clock was stopped with nine seconds left, Washington Bullets forward Chris Webber just looked into the crowd and glared. And what he saw were fans decked out in Chicago Bulls gear cheering loudly.
For once, cheering loudly for the Bullets.
The Bullets will say that one game doesn't make a statement. But last night the Bullets may have done just that by beating the defending NBA champion Bulls, 110-102, before a sellout crowd of 18,756 at USAir Arena.
It was their sixth straight win, and 10th in the past 12 games. The Bullets improved to 38-35 to pull even with Cleveland for a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and within two games of the seventh-place Orlando Magic, which lost to the Los Angeles Clippers last night.
The Bullets won for just the second time this season against a team first or second in its respective division, and the victory ended a 23-game losing streak to the Bulls with Michael Jordan in uniform.
"This is a very big win for us, the first time that I have beaten Chicago," Webber said in a jubilant Washington locker room. "I am just very proud of this team."
You could see this win coming. Even though the Bulls entered the game with an eight-game winning streak and still are on pace to win 70 games (63-10), they had won their two previous games against the Bullets this season by a combined five points.
And the Bulls were without the injured Dennis Rodman (strained left knee), who was only on the bench because the defending NBA champions made an appearance at the White House earlier in the day.
So even though the Bullets got subpar shooting from Webber (15 points, 6-for-18 from the field) and Juwan Howard (14 points, 5-for-11), the team won because Rod Strickland, Calbert Cheaney and Gheorghe Muresan came up big.
Muresan scored a season-high 24 points and improved on his league-leading field-goal percentage by making 11 of 16 shots. Strickland, slowed by a sprained left ankle suffered Tuesday, scored 26 (10 of 15 from the field) and had 14 assists.
Cheaney scored 17, but his biggest contribution was his defense against Jordan, who had to work hard to score 34 and missed his last four shots.
"I try to play him as physical as I can, I try to bump him," Cheaney said. "He's strong, but I'm strong, too. I try to knock him off his cut a little bit. You can't let him run around freely because if you let him, he'll score 60."
For a while, it seemed as if Jordan would pull off his usual late-game heroics. After the Bullets took a 99-93 lead on a layup by Strickland with 4: 05 left, Scottie Pippen (26 points) scored on a layup, and Jordan followed with a jumper to pull the Bulls within 99-98 with 3: 21 left.
"In the past, when they score five quick points like that, maybe we would have panicked," Webber said. "But we felt confident."
Strickland scored on a tough driving layup, and the Bullets ran off seven straight points. That was the game, as Jordan, who made one tough shot after another all night, could not find the range in the closing minutes.
"Their penetration was definitely a problem for us," Bulls coach Phil Jackson said. "We have to remedy that if they are an opponent for us in the playoffs."
The Bullets hope they can avoid the Bulls in the first round, as they moved closer to Orlando in seventh. But the Bullets realize they have to take care of business on the three-game trip that begins tonight in Minneapolis.
"We gained a lot of confidence through this. We beat the Bulls, and the greatest player to ever play the game," Webber said. "But that's just [one game]. We can add to this by going on this road trip and going 3-0. If we do that, that's more important."
It was also important to Webber, as he glared in the final seconds, to let the home fans know that the Bullets can also play this game.
"I was just looking around at the whole crowd, kind of laughing," Webber said. "I had some friends who are the biggest Jordan fans in the world, who had their shoes in the air the whole game. The look was just a little taunt."
And an expression of satisfaction.
NOTES: Earlier in the day, the Bulls hobnobbed with President Clinton on the White House lawn. The visit was a long-delayed ceremony to celebrate the 1996 NBA championship Chicago won last June. Rodman kept a low profile -- as low as he could in his tight leather pants and a shirt that matched his gold-dyed hair. Clinton praised the Bulls as "perhaps the greatest basketball dynasty ever." Lorenzo Williams, on the injured list with a sore left knee, said before last night's game that he will attempt to practice next week when the Bullets return from their three-game road trip.
Opponent: Minnesota Timberwolves
Site: Target Center, Minneapolis
TV/Radio: Ch. 50/WWRC (980 AM)
Outlook: The Timberwolves (36-37) take a two-game winning streak into tonight and are in position to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The Bullets beat the Timberwolves, 105-98, on Nov. 25 at the USAir Arena.
Pub Date: 4/04/97