LANDOVER -- For weeks, the Washington Bullets have preached taking care of their business. By doing just that last night, they were able to reduce the run for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference to a two-team race.
Just two years ago, the Indiana Pacers came within a game of reaching the NBA Finals. But the team's run of seven consecutive seasons in the playoffs came to an end last night as they were eliminated by a 103-90 loss to the Bullets before a sellout crowd at USAir Arena.
By winning, the Bullets (42-38) were able to maintain their one-game lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers (41-39), who defeated the Orlando Magic last night. The Bullets and Cavaliers both have two games remaining, with the final spot possibly coming down to Sunday's meeting between the teams in Cleveland.
A Washington win tomorrow against Orlando, combined with a Cleveland loss to Detroit, would clinch the playoff spot for the Bullets.
Having to play for the second straight night without Gheorghe Muresan (sore lower back), the Bullets more than made up for his absence with the play of Rod Strickland. The 6-foot-3 point guard scored a season-high 34 points (two shy of his career high), putting together a season's worth of highlights with several incredible drives to the basket.
Strickland also had 13 assists, and when he left the game with 1: 12 remaining he received an ovation from the appreciative fans.
Indiana's Mark Jackson, the league's assist leader, averaging 11.6 per game, ended the night with zero assists in 26 minutes.
Juwan Howard scored 25 points and Chris Webber had 20 points and 12 rebounds for the Bullets, who won their second straight.
With the absence of Gheorghe Muresan, the Bullets needed someone to step up, and Howard and Strickland did just that. Howard scored 20 points in the first half, hitting 9 of 14 shots, and Strickland scorched former teammate Mark Jackson, ending the period with nine assists.
Strickland either scored or assisted on 16 of Washington's 20 first-half field goals, helping the Bullets to a 49-43 halftime lead.
In taking the halftime advantage, the Bullets had to overcome a ** slow start, missing their first five shots of the game. Neither team could score for the first two minutes, with Howard ending the drought with a jumper with 9: 54 left in the first quarter.
But the Bullets would hit seven of their next 10 shots, and after Howard made a layup with 4: 34 remaining, Washington had a 15-9 lead. Howard hit six of eight shots and scored 14 points in the quarter, helping the Bullets to a 23-19 lead.
Washington appeared to run into trouble in the second period when Calbert Cheaney picked up his third foul, forcing him to the bench with 6: 39 left in the half. But after Cheaney sat, the Bullets increased their lead from four to nine points, taking a 45-36 lead -- the team's biggest lead of the half -- after a jumper by Howard with 2: 52 left.
It helped the Bullets that neither Reggie Miller (10 points, 3-for-9 from the field) nor Rik Smits (six points, 3-for-10) played well in the first half for Indiana. And that was why the Pacers must have felt good going into halftime trailing by just six.
Washington opened a double-digit lead four minutes into the third quarter, and never looked back.
Strickland put on a clinic on how to play point guard. He hit several difficult, body-twisting shots, and helped the Bullets build leads of up to 18 points. By the end of the quarter, Strickland already had a season-high 29 points, and the Bullets had an 80-64 lead going into the fourth.
NOTE: In activating Lorenzo Williams, the Bullets waived forward Ashraf Amaya in a surprising move. Amaya played in 31 games this season, averaging 1.3 points and 1.7 rebounds.
Pub Date: 4/17/97