Bullets, Pacers meet head-on Showdown of hot teams looms big for playoffs

April 01, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

BOWIE -- Two teams. Indianapolis. Loud crowd. Crucial game.

No, it's not the NCAA championship, played last night at the RCA Dome. This is the other big game in Indianapolis this week, to be played tonight when the Washington Bullets try to strengthen their playoff positioning against the Indiana Pacers.

Most of the talk among the Bullets (36-35) the past two weeks has been about the pursuit of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who at 37-34 hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. However, the Bullets, who trail the Cavs by a game, are only that far ahead of the 10th-place Pacers.

A win tonight would give the Bullets a two-game advantage over Indiana (35-36) and could pull the team even with Cleveland (which plays host to New York tonight).

"It should be a playoff atmosphere. The electricity should be in the air," the Bullets' Tracy Murray said of tonight's game. "The bottom line is what's at stake. And that's going to make everybody come out with that type of playoff intensity."

If the Bullets played much of the first part of the season as one of the more disappointing NBA teams, the Pacers weren't far behind. Over a stretch of 16 days from March 5 to March 21, the Pacers -- who three years ago reached the Eastern Conference finals -- had lost seven of nine games and had fallen five games under .500 with a loss to Chicago.

But the Pacers go into tonight winners of four straight games, taking advantage of a stretch where they played just one team with a winning record. Center Rik Smits, injured earlier in the season, has averaged 28.2 points during the winning streak, including 40 in Sunday's win over the Los Angeles Clippers. And Reggie Miller has averaged 26.7 during the four games.

That production makes Indiana a better team than the one that was crushed, 108-87, by the Bullets at USAir Arena on Feb. 25. Washington has lost nine straight at Indiana.

"It just happened to be one of those nights for Indiana, one of those games you have over an 82-game season," said Bullets coach Bernie Bickerstaff. "That game does nothing for us. They're a much better basketball team and they, like us, are in the hunt."

The Bullets also have four straight wins, matching their longest winning streak of the season. By winning eight of their past 10 games, the Bullets have been playing their best ball of the season.

Two key changes have helped the Bullets: an emphasis on sharing the ball, and making Rod Strickland the primary triggerman of the offense. Sharing the ball, a point driven home daily by Bickerstaff, has resulted in more passing, better shot distribution, and easier shots.

"I wanted them to share the basketball," Bickerstaff said. "To win you have to be in great physical condition, you have to be defensive-oriented and you have to be unselfish. I see guys making an attempt to do those things, although, as we all do in life, some of the guys revert."

By insisting that Strickland do most of the ball handling, Chris Webber and Juwan Howard leading the fast break has been virtually eliminated. The move has led to an increase in Strickland's assists (9.0 per game since Bickerstaff arrived, up from 8.4), and a decrease in the turnovers by Webber (3.2 from 3.4) and Howard (2.7 from 4.6).

"Bernie has brought a little discipline and structure, both on the offensive and defensive ends," said Strickland, who has averaged 13.0 assists over the past three games. "I don't think we had that throughout the season. I think we're now playing with a purpose."

As well as the Bullets have played in their past 10 games, only three of those opponents had winning records (Washington was 1-2 in those games). That is why Bickerstaff continues to push the team forward, even at a time where the bandwagon is beginning to fill.

"Unfortunately, the way we're playing has not been good enough," Bickerstaff said. "When you're in a chase like this, you have to have playoff intensity. I don't know how many of us know what playoff intensity is."

Playing tonight at Market Square Arena, one of the loudest arenas in the league, the Bullets -- if they don't know playoff intensity -- will soon find out.

Playoff March

The Bullets went 11-4 last month, the best March in franchise history, to move back into playoff contention:

Date .. Opponent .. .. Result

1 .. .. Golden St. ... W, 118-108

4 .. .. Phila. . .. .. W, 107-106

6 .. .. Miami .. .. .. W, 99-95

7 .. .. Miami .. .. .. L, 108-105

9 .. .. Phila. . .. .. L, 99-93

12 . .. Van. ... .. .. W, 104-82

14 . .. Milw. .. .. .. W, 105-96

15 . .. Utah ... .. .. L, 100-93

17 . .. San An. ... .. W, 109-85

18 . .. Dallas . .. .. W, 86-85

20 . .. Houston ... .. L, 96-90

22 . .. Portland .. .. W, 108-104

26 . .. Boston . .. .. W, 105-92

28 . .. Toronto ... .. W, 113-86

29 . .. Dallas . .. .. W, 94-87

Bullets tonight

Opponent: Indiana Pacers

Site: Market Square Arena, Indianapolis

Time: 7: 30

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

Outlook: The teams meet for the third time this season, having split the first two games. It's a crucial game for both teams, who are chasing Cleveland and the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference. A win by Washington gives it a two-game lead over the Pacers; a victory by Indiana pulls it even for ninth place. For Indiana, G Reggie Miller (22.3 ppg) and C Rik Smits (16.6 ppg) have showed signs of heating up. A big change has been the addition of G Mark Jackson, who leads the league in assists (10.7 apg). This game also is important in terms of getting an edge in a possible tiebreaker. The teams will face each other for the final time this season at USAir Arena on April 16. Washington has lost nine straight games at Indiana.

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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