Wizards take step forward, beat Cavs; Whitney scores 21 points in 112-99 romp at Arena


By this time in the preseason, first-year Washington Wizards coach Gar Heard figured he had his starting lineup in place, his playing rotation nearly set and his sights firmly set on the start of the 1999-2000 NBA season.

It hasn't happened, with starting center Ike Austin and shooting guard Mitch Richmond still out with injuries and point guard Rod Strickland skipping two practices last week without permission.

But after taking a couple of steps backward in Thursday night's preseason loss in Cleveland, the Wizards took a step forward in a 112-99 win over the Cavaliers last night at Baltimore Arena.

Playing in place of Richmond, Chris Whitney continued to have a solid preseason. The sixth-year guard from Clemson scored a game-high 21 points, while Juwan Howard added 15.

"For about three quarters, we played pretty well," Heard said. "Once we got the big lead, everyone was trying to score, and that's when we let them get back in the game. It was a good win."

It came at the expense of a Cavaliers team that has also been severely undermanned during the preseason, especially in the frontcourt. Shawn Kemp and Zydrunas Ilgauskas sat out, as did Lamond Murray and Danny Ferry.

And, as has happened throughout the preseason, it was not without another Wizards injury. While scoring 13 points during an eight-minute stint in the first quarter, forward Aaron Williams was kneed in the thigh and forced to sit out the rest of the game.

Williams, who had played only three minutes in the team's first two preseason games because of back spasms, will be sidelined for about five days and will likely miss at least the next two preseason games.

"I'm happy that he had a chance to get back on the court," Heard said of Williams, who is projected to start at power forward this season. "At least he showed us what he can do."

Laron Profit's chances of making the Wizards continued to improve. Getting a long look at point guard after Whitney got into foul trouble and Strickland stayed on the bench, the rookie guard from Maryland helped the Wizards build their lead to 35-21 after the first quarter.

"I don't look at it as a significant step [toward a spot on the roster]," said Profit, who finished with four points, three assists and no turnovers in 14 minutes. "I just wanted to play and give the team a little energy."

Strickland stayed on the bench until 6: 47 remained in the third quarter, his punishment for his two unexcused absences from practice after staying in New York following a funeral.

"Coming in in the third quarter was a new situation," Strickland said. "I wasn't that comfortable. I got comfortable at the end of the game."

Said Heard: "Missing those two practices killed him. . . . I think he was a little winded. Once he got into the flow of the game, he looked pretty good. He gives us a dimension that we didn't have, a penetrating guard."

Heard said he has turned over the situation regarding Strickland's absences to general manager Wes Unseld, who spoke with Strickland by telephone Friday.

Strickland was reportedly fined, but not suspended, for missing the two practices, and the situation appears resolved. Strickland said after the game that it is no longer an issue.

"Everything that had to be done is done," Unseld said before the game. "It had nothing at all to do with [testing] Gar or the team or anyone else. It had to do with some personal situations."

Now Heard can turn his attention to trimming the roster. He planned to make some cuts today.

Asked about the extended playing time that players such as Profit received, Heard had said, "I wanted to get a long look, but not this late. I wanted to have the regulars on the floor for 2 1/2 quarters."

NOTE: The crowd was about 3,000 for the team's first trip back to Baltimore since March 1997. Said Unseld: "I don't think that bothers us. We love playing over here. I know I always have."

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