CLEVELAND -- It was an overdue accomplishment three years in the making, from the time Chris Webber and Juwan Howard joined the Washington Bullets in 1994. So what did Webber do yesterday, after his team clinched a playoff berth by beating the Cleveland Cavaliers for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference?
He embraced Howard, his good friend. And he cried.
"I cried because we won," Webber said, wearing an NBA playoffs T-shirt with "Bullets are back" at the bottom. "This is a blessing. It's a great feeling."
For the Bullets, that great feeling was going into the final game with the season on the line and recovering from a poorly played first half for an 85-81 win over the Cavaliers. The Bullets ended with a 44-38 record and capped their best season since 1979.
More importantly, the Bullets ended what had been an NBA-worst eight-year stretch of failing to make the playoffs. The Bullets open a best-of-five playoff series Friday against the defending champion Chicago Bulls.
"I don't really want to talk about the Bulls right now, because I want to savor this," said Webber, who had 23 points and 17 rebounds. "I just hope [the fans] give their undying support to us, because we're going to give an undying effort."
An undying effort yesterday is why the Bullets got to extend their season for at least three games. At the start yesterday, the team played as if were affected by the magnitude of the game: Howard hit one of eight field-goal attempts and the team shot 35 percent, scoring 12 points in the second quarter and totaling 35 points for the half.
"As a team, we didn't have a feeling [at the half]," Webber said. "Individually, everybody was doing a lot of soul-searching. It was every man for himself, to decide what he had done wrong."
But down the stretch, the contributors were many. Webber played the fourth quarter as if his life depended on his possession of the basketball.
Howard, 4-for-14 from the field, made the most of his final shot by hitting a foul-line jumper with 13 seconds left, giving the Bullets a four-point lead. Rod Strickland scored seven of his 19 points in the fourth quarter. And Calbert Cheaney scored two huge baskets in just over a minute, converting a three-point play with 1: 31 left that gave the Bullets an 82-78 lead.
"It's about time," Bullets owner Abe Pollin said. "It's been a long time since we've been in the playoffs. But these guys aren't finished yet. They're just getting started."
The Bullets held the league's best defensive team to 15 fourth-quarter points.
"It was a tough game and guys were fatigued," Strickland said. "We stayed mentally tough, and that's what it's all about."
Strickland's weariness came from chasing Terrell Brandon. Running through an array of intricate screens, Brandon eluded defenders enough times to score 28 points. From Strickland to Cheaney to the other defenders Washington threw at him, Brandon was incredible.
"I've never seen a guard shoot like Terrell Brandon in my life," Webber said. "He must have read that Sports Illustrated article before the game because he played like one of the best point guards. Terrell is incredible."
Brandon, the smallest player on the court at 5 feet 11, nearly single-handedly won the game for the Cavaliers. But it was Gheorghe Muresan, at 7 feet 7 the biggest player, who made the biggest impact.
A big reason the Bullets trailed 44-35 at the half was lack of an inside game. After coming off the bench in the first half, Muresan, who had missed three games with a strained lower back, started the second half.
He was successful establishing position in the third quarter, forcing the Cavaliers to play him straight up or with double-teams. The Cavaliers doubled, leaving their defense off-balance. And by successfully swinging the ball, the Bullets shot 54.5 percent in the third quarter, scoring 29 points.
Washington went into the fourth quarter trailing 66-64.
"We told Gheorghe it was not a black hole," said Bullets coach Bernie Bickerstaff, wearing the same tie he had on in 1995 when his Denver Nuggets team clinched a playoff spot with a win in the final game. "And he passed it out."
And the Bullets passed a major test, demonstrating an ability to win under pressure.
A team that was left for dead at the All-Star break and that fired coach Jim Lynam Feb. 5 finished the season winning 16 of its final 21 games.
Having endured that, Webber's tears were understandable. And also understandable were the screaming and carrying-on during a loud post-game celebration in the Washington locker room.
"Eight weeks ago, nobody thought we would be in it, that we should have packed it in," Webber said. "It feels good to regain confidence in life, regain confidence in hard work, regain confidence in work ethic. It feels good to be here right now."
Eight is enough
The Bullets qualified for the playoffs with a 44-38 mark, ending an eight-year postseason drought:
Sea. .. .. W-L .. .. Coach .. Con.
'88-89 ... 40-42 ... Unseld . 9th
'89-90 ... 31-51 ... Unseld . 9th
'90-91 ... 30-52 ... Unseld. 10th
'91-92 ... 25-57 ... Unseld. 13th
'92-93 ... 22-60 ... Unseld. 14th
'93-94 ... 24-58 ... Unseld. 12th
'94-95 ... 21-61 ... Lynam. 14th
'95-96 ... 39-43 ... Lynam . 9th
Pub Date: 4/21/97