Bullets expect success in playoff before playoffs Postseason berth goes to winner of today's finale

April 20, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- Washington Bullets forward Chris Webber paused when asked what it meant to have his team's playoff chances come down to the last game. Not having been in the situation before, he didn't immediately know what to say.

"It feels good," Webber said. "The pressure is very good. This is where great players are made, or where players become better. I believe we can do it. I believe in our team."

Belief will not be good enough today, not for a Bullets team that has believed it was destined for the playoffs since 1994, when it acquired Webber and drafted Juwan Howard.

What the Bullets have to do today is simple: Beat the Cleveland Cavaliers here and advance to the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs next week against the defending NBA champion Chicago Bulls.

And it appears they will close the regular season with Gheorghe Muresan, the 7-foot-7 center who has missed the past three games with a strained lower back.

Muresan walked through plays during practice yesterday, and later joined the team on the flight here. He plans to suit up this afternoon. "I'm not excited yet, I'm excited after we win the game," Muresan said. "I feel a whole lot of focus and concentration. I want to play."

A win today helps further distance the Bullets from nine consecutive losing seasons and eight years in a row out of the playoffs.

More importantly, a win will help cast aside the label of "most disappointing team" in the NBA this season. "I thought we'd be a 50-win team," Howard said. "But sometimes things don't happen the way you want. Our season could have been blown away. But everyone pulled together as a team. Now we have one game to get to where we want to be."

The Bullets (43-38) hold a one-game lead over the Cavaliers. But a loss would leave them tied with the Cavaliers, who would advance on a tiebreaker.

The Cavaliers helped themselves last week with wins over Orlando and Detroit, but this game will be different. Orlando and Detroit played without key players and rested their starters at the end of the game.

Cleveland also was allowed to dictate the tempo in both games. The league's best defensive team held Orlando to 63 points and Detroit to 75. There will be no luxury of playing against second-string players today.

"We have to play our game, that's what's important," Bullets coach Bernie Bickerstaff said. "It's a test of the wills. But it's not a nonpressure game for Cleveland because they're playing at home -- they're going to have to bring it. We expect to win."

Bullets vs. Cavs

At stake: Final Eastern Conference playoff berth

Site: Gund Arena, Cleveland

Time: 3: 30 p.m. today

TV/Radio: Chs. 11, 4/WWRC (980 AM)

Outlook: This is the first meeting between the teams since Bernie Bickerstaff took over as coach. Against the best defensive team in the league (Cleveland allows 85.6 ppg.), the Bullets averaged 100.0 points. At the time of the third meeting Jan. 11 (a 98-85 Washington win), the Bullets had three of the top four scoring games against the Cavaliers. Tempo will be important. The Cavaliers like the slowdown; the Bullets are most effective running. The best way for Washington to establish its style is to get an early lead. In the games they won, the Bullets had scored 58 and 61 by halftime.

Key matchups: This is the first time the Cavaliers will face the Bullets with G Rod Strickland as the leader of the offense. Strickland is playing his best of the season. The Strickland-Terrell Brandon match will bear watching. Brandon averaged 26.0 points against the Bullets, and Strickland averaged 17.3. Strickland's ability to get to the basket might be neutralized by Brandon's speed. Another key will be Juwan Howard/Chris Webber against Danny Ferry. It's important that the Bullets keep Ferry from establishing a three-point threat.

Where they stand

Team .. .. .. W .. L .. GB .. GR

Washington .. 43 . 38 . -- ... 1

Cleveland ... 42 . 39 .. 1 ... 1

Playoff tiebreakers

If the Bullets lose to the Cavaliers today, the teams will finish the regular season with identical 43-39 records, but only Cleveland will go to the playoffs. Here's why:

1. Head-to-head competition

A Cleveland win today would even the season series at 2-2.

2. Record in conference

A Cleveland win today would leave each team 27-27 against Eastern Conference teams.

3. Winning percentage against conference playoff teams

The Cavaliers were 8-20 (.286), the Bullets 7-19 (.269).

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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