Bullets handle Hawks, 97-86 Arena win redemption on team's payback trail

December 29, 1996|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

Ask Washington forward Chris Webber about the last time the Bullets faced the Atlanta Hawks a month ago, and he'll tell you about the bad taste of a 29-point loss. "We were totally embarrassed last time," Webber said. "Revenge was a factor. We owed them."

Payback would come before a crowd of 11,797 at Baltimore Arena last night, when the Bullets, wearing their retro-uniforms, used a strong defensive effort in the second half to spark a 97-86 win.

In winning, the Bullets (15-13) moved to two games above .500 for the first time this season and are off to their best 28-game start since 1984-85 (16-12). The Bullets have won three straight overall, four straight at home and eight of their past 10 in their most impressive stretch of this season.

"Consistency" was coach Jim Lynam's one-word description of the Bullets' surge. "We've had a good stretch where we've played pretty solid basketball on both ends of the court for most of the game, which is what we weren't doing early in the season."

Early in the season -- and at the time of the 110-81 trouncing in Atlanta on Nov. 29 that began a five-game losing streak -- the Bullets didn't have three players performing at a high level like they are now. Last night, Juwan Howard (25 points, 13 rebounds), Chris Webber (20 points, nine rebounds, eight assists) and Rod Strickland (16 points, nine assists) all performed well.

The bonus was the play of Gheorghe Muresan who, until last night, had not reached the same level of play of a year ago. Going against one of the best defensive centers in the league in Dikembe Mutombo, Muresan recorded season highs in points (18) and rebounds (12) while playing a season-high 35 minutes.

"It was nice, I felt much stronger," Muresan said. "Before the game I said, 'OK, this time it's my turn.' "

Perhaps the 7-foot-7 Muresan should take that approach as his FTC physical play helped in making the 7-2 Mutombo a non-factor. When the teams met in Atlanta, Mutombo scored a career-high 25 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and blocked five shots. Last night Mutombo had six points, seven rebounds and one block.

"We needed a big game from Gheorghe against a great center like Mutombo," Webber said. "You may have saw a couple of times we got on the big fellow and the only reason why we do it is because we know he can do so much."

And the Bullets were successful in the second half in their containment of Mookie Blaylock (17 points in the first half) and Christian Laettner (18 first-half points). Blaylock finished with 27 points, and Laettner had 25. Webber can take a lot of the credit for containing both, putting a body on Blaylock as he ran through screens and playing more physical on Laettner, who was coming off a career-high 37-point game in a win over the Chicago Bulls on Thursday.

"We weren't helping Rod out very much and we had to put a hand on Blaylock," Webber said. "We also tried to get Mutombo away from the rebounds, and Christian away from scoring. To do that against those three, you can be successful."

That done the Hawks, after shooting 50.0 percent in the first half, could manage just 12 of 35 shots in the second half. Atlanta managed just two field goals over the final six minutes of the third quarter, when the Bullets broke open a close game.

Washington, after trailing by three at the half, led by nine at the end of the third and increased that to 14 points in the fourth.

"We're doing a good job playing together as a team," Howard said. "We didn't have that team concept early."

What's most impressive about last night is that the win came against a good Atlanta team. In going 4-2 on their recent West Coast trip, the Bullets weren't exactly playing top-level NBA teams. But the Hawks had won 11 of their previous 15 going into last night.

In beating Toronto and Atlanta this weekend, the Bullets have avenged two early-season losses. On Monday the Bullets face a Charlotte team that won, 102-87, at USAir Arena on Nov. 8.

Yet another shot at revenge.

"We owe a lot of teams," Webber said. "We made a joke about it after the game. We want to get back at the teams that embarrassed us before."

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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