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Bullets are reborn vs. champions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LANDOVER -- They will return next season with a new name, new uniforms and a new arena, but the Bullets already are reborn.

Yes, they blew a nine-point lead in the final four minutes last night. Yes, they got knocked out of the playoffs in three games. Yes, their season is over.

But that wasn't just any team they kept challenging in the fourth quarter -- it was the four-time champion Chicago Bulls.

And that wasn't just any player who kept breaking their hearts -- it was the one and only Michael Jordan.

Frankly, there's only one place for the Bullets to go after a series in which they lost the final two games by a total of six points.

For once, it isn't backward.

"We've got the chance to become a hell of a basketball team," Bullets coach Bernie Bickerstaff said after last night's crushing 96-95 defeat.

"I think it's up to us. We've got to really want it. And I don't have any reason to doubt that we will."

They know so much more about themselves now. You play the best, it all becomes clear. The Bullets aren't far from becoming an elite team. And the experience they gained from this series will prove invaluable.

"In the next year or two years, if they keep playing hard, keep doing things they know how to do phew, somebody's in trouble," the Bulls' Ron Harper said.

Chicago coach Phil Jackson said the Bullets entered the playoffs as the third- or fourth-best team in the Eastern Conference. It took a mammoth effort by Jordan for the Bulls to win Game 2. And it took a furious comeback last night.

The Bullets played that well, even with All-Star forward Chris Webber fouling out in all three games, even with starting center Gheorghe Muresan scoring a total of only three points in Games 2 and 3.

They'll be back, back as the Washington Wizards, back in the new MCI Arena in downtown D.C. It figures that they're reviving at the precise moment they're severing ties with Baltimore, but never mind.

Rod Strickland, he's everything you'd want in a point guard. Calbert Cheaney and Tracy Murray, they know they're players now. Webber and Juwan Howard, they've seen what it takes to become true superstars.

"They're truly one of the teams of the future, no matter how you look at it," Jordan said. "Webber, Howard, Strickland, they're a great combination. And Cheaney. They all played extremely well.

"When we win the championship, we'll certainly look back at this situation as motivation. It opened our eyes to play with the hunger they played with. They pushed us to the limit."

Of course, thanks to Jordan, this series amounted to an exercise in futility. It was almost like watching professional wrestling. No matter how the plot evolved, the outcome was always the same.

The Bullets weren't just in every game; they had a chance to win every game. They trailed by four points in the fourth quarter of Game 1, led by seven at halftime of Game 2, rallied from eight back in the second half last night.

They couldn't win because they weren't ready to win, because the Bulls were simply too much. And they couldn't win because Jordan, even at 34, remains the most dominant athlete in professional sports.

No, he didn't top his 55-point performance in Game 2 last night. All he did was score 14 of his game-high 28 points in the fourth quarter, including 10 in a span of 2: 46 after the Bulls fell behind, 90-81.

"I was extremely surprised how well Michael held up throughout the series," the Bulls' Steve Kerr said. "He was definitely the difference. He is so much better than everybody out there."

And the Bullets couldn't counter.

Murray went scoreless in the final 9: 40 after contributing 20 points off the bench. Strickland had the team's only basket in the final 5: 14. Webber fouled out with 3: 22 left.

The climax?

It seemed almost inevitable.

Jordan lost the ball on the Bulls' final possession; Scottie Pippen recovered and dunked for the winning points. ("Michael missed one and it goes to Pippen," Bickerstaff said, shaking his head.)

The Bullets took over with 7.4 seconds left; Cheaney missed a 16-footer at the buzzer. ("I had a very good look," Cheaney said. "MJ hit my elbow and the refs didn't see it.")

The details will remain fresh throughout the summer -- painful, vivid reminders of how close the Bullets came to forcing Game 4 and reviving questions about the Bulls' vulnerability.

But ultimately, the memories will fade, and the fundamental truths will endure. Bickerstaff brought this team together after replacing Jim Lynam. He put the ball in Strickland's hands. He taught the Bullets to play defense.

The loss to the Bulls served a dual purpose.

It showed how far the Bullets have come.

And it showed how far they need to go.

"We learned so much from Chicago, how to hold your poise, what to do down the stretch," veteran forward Harvey Grant said. "We're going to take this to next year. This is a steppingstone for a young team and the organization."

It took eight seasons for the Bullets to return to the playoffs. Watching the arena come alive last night, watching this former patsy stand tall against the Chicago Bulls, it seemed almost worth the wait.

Pub Date: 5/01/97

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