CHICAGO -- There was an air of confidence that the Washington Bullets carried into the first game of their playoff series against the Chicago Bulls. Confidence based in part from a victory over Chicago earlier this month, and in part from two losses by a combined five points.

But the Bullets found out in their first postseason appearance since 1988 that playoff basketball is totally different.

"Our guys probably had never seen this many media," said Bullets coach Bernie Bickerstaff. "We experienced a little bit of everything. President Clinton was the reason we won in Washington. We're going to clean up some small areas, some mental areas. They're' a great basketball team, but we gave them things down the stretch that hurt us. We made some mental mistakes that hurt us. When you play the Bulls, they make you pay for your mistakes."

In a game that Chris Webber would soon like to forget, the Bullets still managed to stay with the defending NBA champions for three quarters. But Michael Jordan took over in the fourth, finishing with 29 points and leading Chicago to a 98-86 win and a 1-0 advantage in the best-of-five first-round series.

"They're pretty good," said Bickerstaff. "That makes us equal. We didn't give our best shot, and they didn't give theirs. So this should be a [great] series."

Webber, who played so well in Sunday's season-ending victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, struggled. Unable to establish any type of inside game, Webber scored eight points (six on three-pointers) and grabbed four rebounds in 24 minutes. Point guard Rod Strickland (19 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists) had more rebounds than Webber and Juwan Howard (21 points, five rebounds) combined.

"Even without Chris, it was tough," Jordan said. "We had a lot of anxious players in our lockerroom. And you could see the way we shot the ball. We didn't play well offensively at all. Defensively, we felt at home.

"It's hard to send a message to a team that really doesn't have anything to lose."

That the Bullets made it a game at all for most of the night was a credit to a defense that held Chicago to 38 percent shooting. But the Bulls punished the Bullets on the boards (47-37 advantage) and pretty much won on their numerous second chances. Scottie Pippen had 10 rebounds to lead the Bulls and Dennis Rodman, wearing a brace to protect his injured left knee, had nine rebounds in 23 minutes before getting ejected in the fourth quarter.

Even though they only scored 13 points in the third quarter, the Bullets were in great position going into the final period as they trailed by just 64-56. But unlike the three regular-season games against the Bulls, when the Bullets were able to keep it close -- even pulling the one game out -- this time the Bulls' playoff experience showed.

And it was Jordan doing much of the damage. The Bulls won going away despite the antics of Rodman who, after picking up his fifth foul with 6: 23 left, picked up his second technical and was ejected. Rodman gestured to official Steve Javie as he left the court, then tossed his jersey into the crowd.

When Rodman left, Washington's lead was 80-68. And while the Bullets got as close as nine, Chicago cruised.

But Chicago didn't cruise in the first half, despite the Bullets' foul trouble. Webber, with three first-half fouls, played just eight minutes. And Howard, with two fouls early in the first quarter, was limited to 16. And still the Bullets, behind an aggressive defense that limited the Bulls to their poor shooting in the first half, were within 47-43 at intermission.

And the Bullets, who shot 50 percent in the first half, just might have had a lead had they been successful in keeping the Bulls off the offensive boards. Chicago had 16 offensive rebounds, which they converted to 12 points (the Bullets had five offensive rebounds).

From the very start of the game it appeared that the Bulls, believed by many to be vulnerable because of recent injuries to Rodman and Toni Kukoc, were eager to play. And the Bulls appeared determined to stop guard Strickland, who had 26 points and 13 assists in Washington's win over Chicago on April 3.

Strickland was picked up by Jordan at halfcourt on Washington's very first possession.

It was clear the Bullets wanted to go to Gheorghe Muresan in the post from the beginning, and the 7-foot-7 center hit both field-goal attempts in the first 80 seconds.

The Bullets ran into trouble when Howard picked up his second foul with 7: 03 left, battling Pippen for a loose ball. As Howard sat, Rodman -- who was sidelined most of the final month of the season with a sore left knee -- entered the game for the first time.

Webber picked up his second foul with 4: 51 left on a charge into Rodman, who hit one of two free throws for a 16-10 lead -- matching Chicago's biggest lead of the quarter.

Although Webber and Howard sat, the Bullets bounced back as Strickland scored the next six points, tying the game at 18 with a jumper with 2: 22 left. Strickland scored the final eight points of the quarter for the Bullets (he had 10), and Washington ended the quarter trailing, 24-20.

Bullets vs. Bulls

Eastern Conference playoffs

(Bulls lead 1-0)

Game 1: Bulls 98, Bullets 86


Day, Site, Time, TV

Tomorrow, Chicago, 5:30, 11 4

Wed., Wash., 8, 50

Next Fri., Wash.*, TBA, 54 50

May 4, Chi.*, TBA, TBA

* -- if necessary

Pub Date: 4/26/97BY: Jerry Bembry

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