Improving playoff picture puts a hop in Bullets' step

ON THE NBA

March 28, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

It's been a tough year for Rod Strickland, and not just because the point guard is in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in his nine-year career.

The difficulty has been looking around at all the talent on the Washington Bullets and not being able to figure out why the team wasn't meshing.

"I think we're a better team than we've shown," Strickland said. "With all the talent that we have, we should be in the playoffs. Hopefully we can attain that goal."

Thanks to the downhill spiral of the Cleveland Cavaliers, attaining that goal is well within reach. By the time the Bullets walk off the court against Dallas tomorrow, they could be a half-game behind Cleveland and the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference -- with a much easier schedule over the final weeks.

"We feel good about the remainder of the schedule," Chris Webber said. "We're going to fight this through. I love the way it looks."

It's just win time for the Bullets, a team that hasn't been able to string together more than a four-game winning streak all season.

Still, the Bullets are confident. You could see it in their on-the-court swagger, see it in the way they are talking confidently. That was lacking a year ago when a run was made with starters Webber, Gheorghe Muresan and Robert Pack/Mark Price all sidelined with injuries.

"It feels good, knowing that Rod will be there, Chris and Gheorghe," said Juwan Howard, who carried the team over the final weeks last year. "Last year you looked for help, and all you saw were guys on the bench in suits."

One last footnote: If the Bullets win tonight and tomorrow, it will mark the first time since 1987 that Washington had ended the month of March at or above .500.

"We all as a team are focused, and we know what we have to do," Strickland said. "It's not going to be easy. But it's about winning and as long as we're winning and we're focused, we'll be OK."

Mailman delivering big-time

Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan will likely win this year's MVP award, but there isn't a player in the league right now playing better than Utah Jazz power forward Karl Malone.

Since the All-Star break, Malone has embarrassed some of the top power forwards in the league, averaging 30.3 points and holding them to 9.5 over 22 games. In the highlights over that span he has outscored: Shawn Kemp, 32-3, on Feb. 23; Charles Oakley, 33-2, on Feb. 25; Joe Smith, 41-14, on March 3; Otis Thorpe, 41-0, on March 7; Dale Davis, 38-2, on March 14; Webber, 32-7, on March 15; and Anthony Mason, 37-3, on March 17.

Against the four All-Stars in that stretch (Kemp, Kevin Garnett, Christian Laettner and Webber), Malone has a 124-32 scoring advantage.

"I just try to pride myself in playing good, sound defense," Malone said. "I don't get caught up into it. I just go out and play. I feel real comfortable in playing."

Not bad for a 33-year-old physical player who has missed just four games in his career, in an era when a broken nail might hold players out. While the Jazz has been known throughout the years for its disappointing playoff performances, Utah (52-17) has the best record in the West and could carry the home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs.

Around the league

Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning scored 21 points and grabbed eight rebounds on Sunday, his first game since tearing the plantar fascia in his right foot on Feb. 21. Mourning came off the bench, only the second time in his career he did not start. Miami was 9-4 in his absence.

To make room for Mourning, the Heat put Matt Fish on the injured list. Fish said he hurt his back after dunking on Mourning in practice. Sounds kind of fishy.

Even though he will miss the rest of the regular season with a strained left knee ligament suffered Tuesday, Dennis Rodman already has won his sixth straight rebounding title. Rodman fell short of the minimum games played requirement of 70 (he played in 55), but his 883 rebounds are 83 over the minimum of 800. Atlanta's Dikembe Mutumbo (11.9 rebounds per game) would have to average 38.9 rebounds over the last 12 games to catch Rodman.

Golden State forward Joe Smith said he will not sign a contract extension with the Warriors this summer, thus setting himself up to become a free agent at the end of next season. Smith said he's not against re-signing with the Warriors, but first wants to see if the team becomes a playoff contender.

Shaquille O'Neal was in Orlando when his Los Angeles Lakers played the Magic on Sunday, but he did not attend the game as expected. "I knew Shaq wasn't going to show," Horace Grant said. "He talks a lot, but I knew he wasn't going to show up."

Three nights after going scoreless in 41 minutes against Washington, Portland's Clifford Robinson did it again in a loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday.

Quote of the week

From Charles Barkley, after the Houston Rockets lost to Phoenix on Saturday. (Barkley, who missed the game because of an injury, had never lost to either of the teams -- Phoenix or Philadelphia -- that had traded him).

"It's not like a death in the family. It's much worse than that."

Jerry Bembry can be reached via the Internet at Jeryol.com

Bullets tonight

Opponent: Toronto Raptors

Site: USAir Arena, Landover

Time: 7:30

TV/Radio: Ch. 50/WWRC (980 AM)

Outlook: Washington (34-35) has won two straight and six of its last eight, and can reach .500 with a win tonight. This is a crucial game for the Bullets, who are attempting to gain ground on Cleveland for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors have dropped four in a row, including a 96-83 loss to Chicago last night. The Bullets and Raptors have split two games this season, with each team winning on its home court, but Toronto leads the all-time series, 4-2.

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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