Bullets show heart, beat Magic, 96-92 Fourth-quarter move overcomes 18-point deficit in opener

Strickland starts strong

Washington's win 1st in Orlando since '92

November 02, 1996|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

ORLANDO, Fla. -- There was just one thought in the mind of Washington Bullets guard Rod Strickland when Orlando Magic guard Gerald Wilkins let fly with a potential game-tying three-point attempt in the final seconds of last night's season opener for both teams.

"I was hoping that his feet were on the line," Strickland said. "Because when he let it fly, I knew it was going in. And I didn't want the game to go into overtime."

Was Wilkins' shot, with seven seconds left, a three-pointer? It sure looked like it to everyone in the arena, including Ken Griffey Jr. and Tiger Woods, who were sitting not far from where Wilkins let it go.

But, hey, had the shot counted as a three-pointer instead of the two-pointer it was ruled, it would have ruined the script of the new-look Bullets, who opened their season with a come-from-behind, 96-92 win before 17,248 at the Orlando Arena.

The outcome left the crowd stunned, and why not? The Magic has pretty much had its way with the Bullets in recent years, winning four straight over Washington, including six straight here. But this is the start of the "Shaq-less" era in Orlando, and the results for the Magic are unlikely to be the same as in recent years.

This is also the start of what the Bullets hope is a "payback" era for them.

They go into the 1996-97 season with their strongest team in recent memory. And while the opening act won't get high grades across the board, the Bullets did show some heart in coming from 18 points down in the first half to pull out the win.

"It's time to get out of the basement," Bullets forward Chris Webber said. "And we're out here thinking with the attitudes of winners."

Last night showed that the Bullets will be able to throw a lot of weapons at opponents. Strickland led five players in double figures with 20 points, and added nine assists. Juwan Howard appeared to lack stamina after missing much of training camp, but still managed 16 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in 40 minutes. And Webber, playing out of position at center with Gheorghe Muresan (hip flexor) out, scored 19 points.

That Webber only grabbed one rebound for the night has more to say about the play of reserve forward Ben Wallace, the rookie out of Virginia Union. Wallace, the first player off the bench last night, grabbed 10 rebounds in 19 active minutes.

"I was a little nervous," said Wallace, who didn't show it. "After I went up and down the court a couple of times, I thought all I'd just do was what I had been doing all along."

And that was to provide energy for the Bullets, who desperately needed it after a ragged start that saw them fall behind by eight points at the end of the first quarter and by 18 with 4: 46 left in the second quarter after two free throws by Orlando's Penny Hardaway (19 points).

The thought of getting embarrassed was apparently enough to wake up the Bullets, as they ended the half with a 15-4 run. Both Calbert Cheaney and Webber had five points each during the run and, after a Howard dunk with nine seconds left, the Bullets were happy to go into the half trailing by just 52-45.

"I thought all of our execution broke down at the end of that second quarter," Orlando coach Brian Hill said. "They tried to get their life back and get into the game."

Still, the Magic increased its lead to 68-57 midway through the third quarter following a free throw by Hardaway with 4: 53 remaining. But that increase didn't tell the story of Orlando struggling from the field, eventually hitting just seven of 20 shots in the quarter.

Howard came to life at that point, hitting three baskets in the final 2: 55 and, after Chris Whitney hit a jumper with two seconds left, the Bullets were within 71-69.

From there Washington took control, leading by as much as 93-88 after a dunk by Cheaney -- off a nice feed from Strickland -- with 46 seconds left. That was a prelude to the Wilkins jumper from the left corner, which appeared to tie the game at 93 -- and led the dejected Bullets to call time.

"I thought it was a three," Webber said. "But then again I wasn't looking at his feet, I was down there getting banged in the head trying to get a rebound."

Give the official an assist for calling the shot a two and giving the Bullets the ball. Howard was fouled on Washington's next possession, hitting two free throws and leaving the Magic one last try to tie.

But Webber stole the inbounds pass, sealing the game. After the horn, he would walk off court after his first game in 10 months doing a little rendition of the "Bankhead Bounce," a dance popular here in Florida.

"This is the way I was hoping to come back," Webber said. "We had a slow start, but we haven't played with each other. I don't think we were out of sync, but I think we'll get tight. And when we do, we'll be about winning."

Bullets tonight

Opponent: Cleveland Cavaliers

Site: USAir Arena, Landover

Time: 7: 30

TV/Radio: HTS/WWRC (980 AM)

Outlook: This is the home opener for the Bullets, who won their season opener last night in Orlando. Washington won behind a defense that held the Magic to 38.5 percent shooting. The Bullets lost two of three against the Cavaliers last season, including both games at USAir Arena. In all, the Bullets have a three-game home losing streak against the Cavaliers.

Pub Date: 11/02/96

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