Bullets win 3rd in row, go over .500 Hold off Minnesota, 105-98, despite squandering lead

November 26, 1996|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

LANDOVER -- Maybe the Washington Bullets have simply benefited from a break in the schedule that served up the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves in succession. Or, just maybe, the Bullets are becoming a good team.

Whatever the reason, the Bullets won their third straight game last night and got above the .500 mark, as they defeated the Timberwolves, 105-98, before 12,224 at USAir Arena.

The Bullets improved to 7-6, their best 13-game start since the 1984-85 season, when they were 8-5.

"I believe things are falling into place," Bullets forward Chris Webber said. "We look at this as having won three games. But we have a lot more to do."

It was a good sign that, on a night when Webber had a bad game, the Bullets were able to take control of the game early, leading by as many as 24 points in the first half. Webber hit four of 12 shots on his way to a 16-point night. But he helped in other ways, grabbing a game-high 15 rebounds and blocking three shots.

For the second straight game, defense and balance were the keys to Washington's win. Juwan Howard led all scorers with 24 points. Chris Whitney and Rod Strickland added 13 points each, and, while Strickland didn't shoot well, he did have double-digit assists (10) for the first time this season. Strickland was fourth in the league in assists last season, averaging 9.6.

"I'm missing shots I normally make -- they're just not going in right now," said Strickland, who was 3-for-15 from the field. "I just know that everything is going to come together. We are not where we want to be, and it's a good sign. We'll only get better."

The Bullets held the Timberwolves to 41.9 percent shooting. Over the past five games, the Bullets have held their opponents under 45 percent shooting four times. It's no coincidence that Washington has won four of the five.

"Our defense is playing terrific," said coach Jim Lynam, whose team scored 22 points off 22 Minnesota turnovers.

The defensive tone was set early, with Washington holding Minnesota to five points in the first 9: 52. That allowed the Bullets to lead by as many as 19 points in the opening quarter, although the Timberwolves pulled within 12 by quarter's end.

By the time the Timberwolves made the game interesting in the fourth quarter, many in the crowd had left the arena. A half-court trapping defense disrupted the Bullets' offense. And with Shane Heal, a rookie guard from Australia, coming off the bench to hit three three-pointers in the final quarter, the Timberwolves twice got within five points. The last time was with 1: 26 left, when Heal hit a three-pointer that pulled the Timberwolves within 92-87.

"They did a good job running at us," Lynam said. "And when you're behind, you play free and easy."

But not free and easy enough to come back and win. After Minnesota got within five, Strickland responded immediately with a driving layup that put the game out of reach. And the Timberwolves were unable to recover from a first half that forward Tom Gugliotta likened to being "knocked out in the first round."

It was a tough night for Gugliotta, a former first-round draft pick of the Bullets. Although he finished the game with 25 points and 12 rebounds, he had seven turnovers -- five in the decisive first quarter.

It was an even tougher night for second-year forward Kevin Garnett, who was averaging 15.9 points and 8.7 rebounds. Garnett finished with eight points, hitting two of 11 shots. He did grab 11 rebounds, but a lot of those were when the game was pretty much out of reach.

Having accomplished what they were supposed to -- roll over three perennial pushovers -- the task for the Bullets gets a little tougher as they face back-to-back games against Atlanta and Houston this weekend.

Pub Date: 11/26/96

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