LANDOVER -- For close to five months, Washington Bullets fans have been sympathetic and even supportive of an injury-ridden team obviously short of talent.
But the charity ended at the Capital Centre last night. The hecklers were out in full force and spared no one in their abuse, as the Indiana Pacers, led by Reggie Miller's 36 points, routed the Bullets, 131-109.
The Pacers, fighting for one of the final Eastern Conference playoff berths, capitalized on the Bullets' matador defense to shoot 64 percent from the field. Miller made 14 of his 18 shots, including a perfect 5-for-5 from three-point range before sitting out the meaningless last quarter.
In recent weeks, Bullets coach Wes Unseld has held private conversations with at least five of his players he felt were more interested in negotiating future contracts than concentrating on trying to win games.
But after a sixth straight loss, Unseld displayed little anger.
"I have to realize what's going on," he said. "We've pushed, pushed and pushed these guys to the point where now they're might not be anything left to push. I don't think I can push anymore. I won't push them over the brink."
The Bullets, who had played the Lakers, Bulls and Cavaliers extremely tough last week, capitulated early last night. After making 11 of their first 14 shots to grab a 24-15 lead, it was all downhill for the Bullets.
Miller found his shooting stroke and scored 11 points in four minutes to give the Pacers a 34-29 lead after one quarter. By halftime, the lanky, 6-foot-7 guard had 26 points and his team a 70-53 cushion.
When the visitors' lead ballooned to 20 points early in the third quarter, the booing reached a crescendo. One leather-lunged fan yelled during a Bullets timeout, "I don't believe you won't even try," and then began shouting out the uniform numbers of his targeted players.
"This was very embarrassing," said Bullets forward Harvey Grant. "We had beaten this team before [the first two encounters]. We still have our pride to play for. If I paid $50 or $60 to watch us play, and we weren't giving 100 percent, I'd boo, too."
The Pacers, from head coach Bob Hill on down, felt the lottery-bound Bullets were ripe for picking.
"I told my team before the game that if we can break the Bullets' spirit early, they have nothing left to play for," said Hill. "And that's what we did tonight."
Added Detlef Schrempf, the Pacers' prized sixth-man, "It's the last few weeks of the season, and the Bullets know they're not going anywhere. They have to play out the string, and they can still play you tough if they're in the game in the fourth quarter. But if you catch them early like we did, it's hard for them to keep playing hard."
The Pacers (35-37), who have won 20 out of their past 29 games in their strong playoff push, are an explosive team that depends heavily on the long-range shooting of Miller and small forward Chuck Person.
"When Miller's shooting like he did tonight," said Unseld, "that opens things up inside for Rik Smits and their other big guys. They had everything going for them."
Said Hill, "Reggie had that look in his eyes, and there was nothing they could do to stop him. He was in a shooter's zone, so we ran a lot of isolations for him and kept riding him."
And Miller kept kicking dust in the faces of the trailing Bullets who are anxiously counting down the days to the end of the season and the lottery drawing, May 17.
NOTES: Bullets general manager John Nash said he is still hopeful that injured guard Rex Chapman will play before the end of the season. Chapman, currently undergoing therapy in Louisville for his bruised left heel, which has kept him sidelined since December, has targeted April 10, a home game against Miami, for his possible return. Washington would have four more games left. If Chapman is unable to play by April 10, the Bullets will recommend surgery as soon as possible. Rehabilitation would take eight to 10 weeks, but give Chapman time to participate in summer leagues.