LANDOVER -- After 81 games, after a half season of being considered the most disappointing team in the NBA, the Washington Bullets' chance to end nine years of playoff futility comes down to one game.
If the Bullets want to guarantee themselves another game at USAir Arena, they must win in Cleveland tomorrow. That much became certain last night as the Bullets beat the Orlando Magic, 104-93, while the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Pistons, 82-75, in Auburn Hills, Mich.
"This is the first time in a long time that this team has had something to play for in the 82nd game," Bullets coach Bernie Bickerstaff said. "We are above .500, a lot of good things are happening for us and we are going to try to finish it off."
It's a must-win situation for the Bullets tomorrow, even though at 43-38 the team can't finish any worse than in a tie with Cleveland. If the Bullets win tomorrow, they win the eighth spot outright.
If Cleveland wins, the teams will finish tied at 43-39, will have split their season series and will have identical records against Eastern Conference teams. But the Cavaliers would go to the playoffs by way of their record against Eastern Conference playoff teams: Cleveland is 8-20 against such teams, the Bullets 6-19.
"We have to win, there's no other way around it," said Bullets point guard Rod Strickland. The Bullets shook off a sluggish first half to win their third straight game, and assure the team its best record since the 1981-82 season, when Washington finished 43-39.
Strickland once again was brilliant, with 27 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. Juwan Howard scored 25 points and Calbert Cheaney had 15 points and a career-high 13 rebounds as the Bullets won for the 15th time in 20 games. Their eight-game home winning streak is the team's longest since the 1988-89 season.
Penny Hardaway had 20 points for the Magic, which already had wrapped up the seventh seed in the East.
It was an important enough game to Washington that each of the starters, with the exception of Harvey Grant, played at least 40 minutes. But by the time the fourth quarter began, it made no difference who won last night's game as the Detroit-Cleveland final was flashed on the scoreboard. The Bullets could have clinched last night only if the Cavaliers had lost.
"My heart dropped a little bit," Bullets forward Chris Webber said upon learning of the Cavaliers' result. "At the same time, we have another game on Sunday. We have to take care of business on Sunday, and if we do, we'll have a nice ride home."
This was not a game without controversy. On Wednesday, when Orlando played Cleveland, Magic center Rony Seikaly was sidelined with two sore ankles and the starters barely played in the fourth quarter. The moves were perceived by many as a favor by Magic coach Richie Adubato to his good friend, Cleveland coach Mike Fratello.
Last night Seikaly played 38 minutes and three other Orlando starters played at least 36 minutes. And the fact that the Magic players were fouling in the final minute to stop the clock -- while trailing by 13 points -- prompted Bickerstaff to have words with Adubato after the game. The conversation didn't appear friendly, and the two did not shake hands.
"I told him I thought I was going to learn something, I was looking for that 13-point play," Bickerstaff said. "I told him if we ever got a deficit like that [in the final minute], I wanted to know what we could do to get back in the game."
Webber took his criticism of Adubato and the Magic a step farther.
"I think that was fake. To be honest, I think that was very childish to foul our players with 29 seconds, trying to act like they were trying to make a comeback," Webber said. "I think that was just a joke, I think that made a mockery of the NBA. You talk about Allen Iverson scoring 40 and [the Bullets] letting him shoot the ball, let's talk about sitting players down so your buddy can win a game."
In the end, whom Orlando played didn't make a difference. The Bullets are now down to one game, in Cleveland, tomorrow.
May the better team win.
"That is what it's all about," Webber said. "We put ourselves in this position by losing some tough games early on, but we also put ourselves in this position by playing very well of late. So we just need to go in and play our game."
Bullets-Cavaliers playoff situation
Where they stand
Team ......... W ... L ... GB ... GR
Washington .. 43 .. 38 ... -- .... 1
Cleveland ... 42 .. 39 .... 1 .... 1
Washington 104, Orlando 93
Cleveland 82, Detroit 75
Wash. at Cleve., 3: 30 p.m.
' (End of regular season)
Tomorrow's winner earns eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff berth.
Pub Date: 4/19/97