Bullets setting sights higher than eighth place Trailing Cavaliers again, Washington still hoping to catch 7th-place Magic

April 03, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

BOWIE -- With five straight wins, the Washington Bullets briefly elevated themselves into a tie for eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings. With the best record in basketball, the Chicago Bulls are the top team in the East and favorites to win their third straight NBA title.

To most basketball observers, tonight's Bullets-Bulls matchup at the USAir Arena is a possible preview to an opening-round playoff series. But the Bullets, after spending weeks chasing the eighth spot, have set their sights even higher.

"We're [a half-game out of] the eighth spot, but I'm looking forward to the seventh spot," Juwan Howard said as he left the team's practice facility at Bowie State yesterday. "Right now, we're in a good position, and everybody's feeling good about themselves."

Seventh place is by no means out of reach. Washington's win over Indiana on Tuesday tied the team with Cleveland for the eighth spot in the East, before the Cavaliers regained a half-game lead by beating the Boston Celtics last night. Tuesday's win also pulled the Bullets to within three games of the seventh-place Orlando Magic, which has lost three straight. The seventh-place finisher in the East will likely open the playoffs against the Miami Heat, a good team -- but not the Bulls.

"Right now, we're just trying to get in," Harvey Grant said. "We want the eighth spot, and, if we take care of business, maybe we can get that seventh spot if Orlando slips."

Asked if the Bullets might try to use tonight's game to send a message to the Bulls, Chris Webber laughed.

"You can't send a statement to the Bulls," Webber said. "They have four championships. You can't make a statement to them; you have to earn their respect. And I think we've already done that."

That respect comes courtesy of two tightly contested losses for the Bullets this season: a 108-107 defeat at Chicago on Jan. 14, and a 103-99 setback at the USAir Arena on Feb. 21.

Still, the Bullets have lost eight consecutive games to Chicago, and another close loss tonight will again force the Bullets to focus on the eighth and final playoff spot.

"We've played them well," Rod Strickland said. "But we don't have any wins, so what does that mean? I look at it as a game where we're trying to beat a great team. It would be a real nice win."

The Bullets might have to attempt that without a healthy point guard. Strickland sprained his left ankle in the third quarter of Tuesday's game. And his replacement, Chris Whitney, sprained his left ankle while Strickland was in the locker room getting taped. Both returned, but neither had any quickness. Both are listed as probable for tonight.

"Those are the types of guys you want to go to war with," Grant said of Strickland and Whitney. "They were banged up, and they could have easily sat. But they came back and played. You can't say enough about those two."

And you can't say enough about the Bullets, who have come back from being perhaps the biggest disappointment in the league to a playoff contender going into the final weeks of the season.

The Bullets have had success in the role of the chaser, closing in on Cleveland (Washington owns the tiebreaker with the Cavs, 2-1). Now the Bullets get to feel how it is to be chased, with Indiana (35-37) being close behind.

"It's more pressure now; we didn't have any pressure when we were chasing," Webber said. "I think there's more of a burden now. Now you guys can say we played ourselves out of it if we don't get in.

"But we're confident," he added. "We haven't won a championship or anything, but we're right in the mix."

Pub Date: 4/03/97

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