LANDOVER -- Asked to describe the play of teammate Rod Strickland last night, Washington Bullets shooting guard Calbert Cheaney began to shake his head in disbelief.
"He's amazing," Cheaney said. "He's one of the best point guards I've ever seen in terms of getting to the basket. He's one of the top three point guards in the league."
On a night when the Bullets reduced the battle for the eighth and final playoff spot in the NBA Eastern Conference from three teams to two, Strickland put a season's worth of highlights into one game.
Strickland scored a season-high 34 points and handed off 13 assists in a 103-90 win over Indiana -- eliminating the Pacers from the playoff race.
The Bullets (42-38) maintained their one-game lead over Cleveland (41-39), which also won last night. Each team has two games to play, with a showdown set for Sunday in Cleveland.
But if Washington beats Orlando and Cleveland loses to Detroit tomorrow, the Bullets would have the playoff spot wrapped up.
The Bullets need to win the eighth spot outright. If Cleveland and Washington finished tied, the Cavaliers would advance based on the tiebreaker of best winning percentage against Eastern Conference playoff teams.
"Hopefully, the final game won't mean anything," said Bullets forward Chris Webber, who had 20 points and 12 rebounds. "Hopefully, we'll have something to celebrate on Friday."
While the Bullets are poised to celebrate a playoff berth for the first time since 1988, the Pacers were left to wonder what happened to their season.
Two years ago, Indiana was within a game of the NBA Finals, and the Pacers had made seven straight playoff appearances. But knowing they needed a victory last night to keep their already slim playoff hopes alive, they fell flat.
"You saw a team that deserves to be in the playoffs, and one that doesn't," said Indiana coach Larry Brown. "I didn't see a sense of urgency. I can't imagine coming into a game like this and not playing like it's the end of the world."
The Pacers had a huge advantage at the center position. The Bullets' Gheorghe Muresan sat out his second straight game with a strained lower back. But Indiana's 7-foot-4 center, Rik Smits, managed just 10 points in 24 minutes, hitting four of 13 shots.
Indiana's Reggie Miller also scored 10, hitting three of 13 shots. Mark Jackson, averaging a league-leading 11.6 assists, had zero. The Pacers trailed by as many as 18 points in the fourth quarter.
"You don't stop the great ones," Bullets coach Bernie Bickerstaff said of Miller's poor shooting game. "We were just fortunate that a great player had a subpar night."
No one on the court had a better night than Strickland. He hit 11 of 18 shots from the field and 12 of 14 free throws. On the 17 field-goal-scoring possessions that Washington had in the first half, he either scored or assisted on 16 of them.
The shots he made were mostly of the unbelievable variety, with tough drives against a big Indiana front line.
"It was just the way the game flowed," said Strickland, who fell two points of a career high in scoring. "As a team, we knew what had to be done. It just happened to be a good night for me."
Though Strickland came to the Bullets having the reputation of a malcontent, he has gone through an incident-free season with Washington and just might be one of the more modest players in the league. Strickland never gets hung up on how many points he scores; he just seems to want to play well and to win.
He also is so candid that, at times, he's hilarious. For his exceptional play, Strickland was the guest on the post-game radio show last night. As the interviewer began to wrap up the show, Strickland, still on the air, said, "Thanks a lot. Do I get another Bullets watch?"
For an opponent, there's nothing funny about the way Strickland plays. Both coaches used the same word to describe him after last night's game: phenomenal.
"I think he was phenomenal," Brown said. "He has got this team playing so well."
NOTE: Lorenzo Williams was activated from the injured list. To make room, the Bullets cut forward Ashraf Amaya.
NBA East race
Where they stand
Team ......... W ... L ... GB ... GR
Washington ... 42 .. 38 .. -- ... 2
Cleveland .... 41 .. 39 .. 1 .... 2
Tomorrow Orlando at Washington Cleveland at Detroit
Sunday Washington at Cleveland
Pub Date: 4/17/97