Howard steps up, so do Bullets 108-87 romp over Pacers a move toward playoff slot

February 26, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

LANDOVER -- Although the players wouldn't say it, there was no doubt that last night's game against the Indiana Pacers was a make-or-break moment for the Washington Bullets.

Entering the game in 11th place in the Eastern Conference standings, the Bullets desperately needed to begin making up ground, and what better way than against one of the teams directly ahead of them.

So the Bullets played perhaps their most impressive game in nearly a month, leading by as many as 29 points in last night's 108-87 win over the Pacers before a sellout crowd at USAir Arena.

For the Bullets (25-30), it was just their third win in 12 games. But they did pick up a game on the Pacers (25-29), and are a half game behind the ninth position in the Eastern Conference. The top eight teams in the Eastern Conference make the playoffs.

Last night, Chris Webber's minutes were limited because of foul trouble, but there were enough players to pick up the slack. Juwan Howard, coming off a nine-point game against the Pistons on Sunday, came close to his first career triple-double with 28 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. Howard scored 20 in the first half.

"This one helps. It truly gives us some confidence," Howard said. "Yesterday, I stayed in bed all day and rested my body. It feels good to come out and redeem myself. I apologize to everyone for not stepping up and being consistent on Sunday."

Rod Strickland had 17 points and eight assists, and Tracy Murray came off the bench to score 19 as the Bullets beat the Pacers for the first time this season.

"I thought early we rebounded awfully well because they're a very good rebounding team," coach Bernie Bickerstaff said. "I thought we controlled the ball and we were able to get on the break. Our defense was very good and our rotation was very good."

For the Pacers, one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference in recent years, it was the sixth loss in their past eight games. Reggie Miller, the team's top scorer, scored 14 (hitting just four of 12 shots) in 28 minutes. Rik Smits was the only other Indiana player in double figures, also scoring 14.

Howard had quickly pinned the blame on himself after Sunday's loss, when he scored only nine and had two rebounds. That game ended a string of 35 consecutive games in double figures in scoring.

He more than made up for that poor effort in the first half alone last night, when he recorded 20 points, six rebounds and four assists. The Bullets took a 58-37 halftime lead.

The Bullets dominated because their defense didn't allow Miller to get untracked. Averaging 21.8 points per game before last night, Miller continued his struggle of late. He had hit just 33.3 percent of his field-goal attempts in the previous six games.

In the first half, he missed six of seven and scored four and he left the game with just less than three minutes remaining having scored only four points.

"You don't stop the great ones, you make it harder," Howard said. "You know, we made a mistake the other night. We said, 'Let's make Michael [Jordan of the Bulls] be great.' And we did."

When the Pacers missed seven consecutive shots late in the first period, the Bullets used 54.5 percent shooting to jump to a 27-19 lead.

The Bullets continued the push in the second quarter with an 11-3 run to take a 38-23 lead on a Howard tip-in with 8: 02 remaining.

Howard scored 14 in the second quarter, when he hit seven of eight shots. When he took a lob pass from Murray and scored on a dunk with 57 seconds remaining, the Bullets had their biggest lead of the half, 56-35. That was matched at the half, 58-37.

In the third period, Howard was limited to one field goal. And Webber picked up another foul two minutes in, forcing him to the bench.

But the Bullets didn't let up. They grabbed a 29-point lead in the third quarter when Murray hit two free throws with just more than a minute left for an 83-54 lead. Murray scored 17 through three quarters.

Pub Date: 2/26/97

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