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 started strongly, leading by as many as 23 points in the first half, and had just enough to hold off a rally that got the Timberwolves as close as five points in the final two minutes.
At 7-6, the Bullets have their best 13-game start since the 1984-85 season (8-5).
Six Bullets scored in double figures, led by Juwan Howard's 24. Chris Webber had a bad shooting night (4-for-12) but grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds. And Rod Strickland reached double figures in assists for the first time this season, with 10 to go with 13 points.
After leading by as many as 23 in the first half, the Bullets had a seemingly comfortable 78-64 lead entering the fourth quarter. But it took less than two minutes for the Timberwolves to cut the lead to single digits, 78-69, after a jumper by James Robinson with 10: 10 left.
The Timberwolves, playing reserves through much of the fourth quarter, used a scrambling half-court trap to get back into the game. As the confused Bullets missed one shot after another, the Timberwolves closed to 92-87 after rookie guard Shane Heal hit the last of his three fourth-quarter three-pointers with 1: 26 left.
Strickland answered with a driving layup, giving the Bullets enough room to take the victory.
Before a recent three-game losing streak, the Timberwolves had gotten off to one of the best starts in franchise history. With Tom Gugliotta (21.8 points, 9.4 rebounds) and Kevin Garnett (15.9, 8.7) off to impressive starts, the Timberwolves -- perennial pushovers -- had been competitive in most of their games.
But there were few signs of competitiveness in the first quarter, when Minnesota scored five points in the first nine minutes. After falling behind by as many as 18, the Timberwolves were fortunate to be down by 12 at the end of the quarter.
Credit the Bullets defense again with setting the tone by shutting down Minnesota's one-two punch of Gugliotta and Garnett.
Gugliotta, the former Washington first-round draft pick, led Minnesota with seven points and four rebounds, but had five of the Timberwolves' eight first-quarter turnovers. Garnett couldn't get anything to fall, missing four shots and going scoreless in the quarter.
The Timberwolves shot 27.8 percent in the first quarter.
Webber couldn't do much better than Garnett as far as scoring, ending up with one point in the quarter. But he did grab five rebounds.
The Bullets got contributions from a lot of other places, getting five assists from Strickland, six points from Calbert Cheaney and seven points from Howard.
Howard's free throw with 2: 24 left that gave Washington its biggest lead, 23-5.
Only a late spurt kept the Timberwolves from getting blown out, as they ended the half with an 8-1 run -- five of the points from Gugliotta -- but Minnesota trailed 24-12.
It wasn't much better in the second quarter, as the Timberwolves were unable to cut the lead into single digits. Washington's biggest lead, 54-31, came with 2: 21 left, when Webber made two free throws. Even though Webber went through the first half without a field goal, the Bullets led 58-40.
In the third quarter, the Timberwolves got as close as 74-64 after a three-pointer by Gugliotta with just over two minutes left. But Washington maintained control and took a 78-64 lead into the fourth quarter.
NOTES: Tracy Murray had 10 second-quarter points for Washington -- well above his 6.6-point average. Howard has scored in double figures in 33 straight games, getting at least 20 in 23 of them.
Pub Date: 11/26/96