'New' Bullets give Knicks fight, but fall Their inspired debut for Bickerstaff ends in another N.Y. win, 97-92

Knicks 20-1 vs. Washington

Webber strains back late in up-down game

February 12, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

LANDOVER -- For years, the Washington Bullets have been bullied by the New York Knicks. In the first three losses this season, the Bullets had been pushed around so much by New York that they abandoned their inside game.

But last night the Bullets, playing under new coach Bernie Bickerstaff for the first time, did something totally different against the Knicks -- they fought back. And they gave the Knicks a game for the first time this season, eventually losing, 97-92, before a sellout crowd of 18,756 at USAir Arena.

Thus the Bickerstaff era began with a loss. But at least the Bullets didn't back down to a team that they had failed to score more than 80 points against in three previous meetings this season.

"I was proud of them, they did not quit and that is the danger of playing with emotion," Bickerstaff said of his team after its fifth straight loss. "And that is why you want to be consistent [emotionally] as a basketball team. When we lost the emotion, we then got physically beaten."

Patrick Ewing scored 18 points for the Knicks, who swept the four-game season series by beating the Bullets for the 20th time in 21 games since Nov. 13, 1992.

Rod Strickland scored 21 for the Bullets (22-26), Juwan Howard 19 and Chris Webber had 17 points -- including 12 in the first quarter -- before leaving with 6: 55 left with a strained back. Tim Legler, in his first game of the season, scored nine points.

Washington trailed 72-67 going into the final quarter. When Webber scored on a layup with 10: 37 left it was the first time he scored since the first quarter -- a scoreless stretch of 28 minutes.

After the injury, sustained going after a loose ball, Webber would return to the game with 2: 45 left. But he was still in obvious pain and was quickly replaced.

And still the Bullets made it a game, getting to within 93-90 after Harvey Grant scored on a tip dunk with 55 seconds left. But Ewing responded with a layup, and then a baseline jumper to secure the Knicks' win.

"I was on him, but he double clutched," Grant said of Ewing. "The second one, that's his bread and butter. We wanted to bring it to them. If I had made some shots [2-for-11], we would have beaten them.

"Bernie is kind of like Wes [Unseld]. They hit you, you hit them back. I think he's going to be good for us."

In dropping their first three games to the Knicks this season, the Bullets had been pretty much out of it by halftime as they were unable to match New York's physical style. But last night the Bullets led by as many as 12 points in the first half, and had a 54-52 halftime lead.

Maybe it was just a huge adrenalin rush from playing their first game under a new coach, but the Bullets could do no wrong in the early minutes. Washington scored the first 10 points of the game, with a hook shot by Gheorghe Muresan with 8: 57 left giving the Bullets a 10-0 lead.

There were two noticeable changes with the Bullets from the outset. One, the team played with a defensive intensity not seen this season, with a lot of switching on assignments when New York screened. The second change was Muresan doing a better job establishing position on offense. Several times he sealed Ewing away from the basket, than took lob passes for easy dunks.

Seeing his team out-hustled, New York coach Jeff Van Gundy replaced his entire starting five, to try to shake things up.

The move worked. John Starks (15 points) came off the bench and provided instant offense, scoring five straight points for New York. The Knicks got to within 20-14 after a jumper by John Wallace with 3: 22 left, but never got closer in the first quarter. The Bullets matched their first-half total in their last game against New York in taking a 32-22 lead at the end of the first quarter.

"You have to give them credit for their start," said Van Gundy. "It was not just us being not good, they were great. They were energized, and I think change does that."

With 9: 04 left in the second quarter, Legler entered the game to a standing ovation from the crowd. It was Legler's first appearance since April 17 of last year, when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. And he hit his first shot attempt, a jumper with 5: 58 left that gave the Bullets a 45-37 lead.

"When I first got in there, I was a little bit tentative," said Legler, who would hit three of six shots. "All in all, I felt really good. But it's just a small step -- this, literally, is like the second day of training camp for me. I have a long way to go."

But the Bullets were unable to sustain their 65.2 percent shooting of the opening quarter. And New York had closed the gap to 54-52 at the half.

And for the entire third quarter the Knicks were able to dictate their defensive, grinding style. In the third quarter the Bullets scored just 11 points, tying their season low for points in a quarter.

Had the Bullets hit their free throws over the final minutes of the third quarter, they would have been right in the game. But the Bullets missed all six of their attempts in the final 3: 32 -- four by Howard, and two by Webber.

And with Allan Houston scoring the final six points, including a jumper with two seconds left, New York had a 72-65 lead going into the final period.

Pub Date: 2/12/97

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