Playoffs Doubly Sweet For Howard, Webber

Bullets Forwards Feel Vindicated By Berth

April 22, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

The summer of 1996 was one of serious soul-searching for Chris Webber. Dealing with the frustration of two consecutive injury-marred seasons with the Washington Bullets, combined with playing for a team that was labeled an underachiever, was becoming difficult to bear.

Webber felt wounded. So did his longtime teammate, buddy and fellow forward, Juwan Howard. And their mutual pain came up during one of their discussions over the summer.

"We had to check ourselves," Webber said of the talk. "It was like, `Are we really who we think we are? Do we really want it as bad as we say we do?' "

For half a season, the answer appeared to be "no," and coach Jim Lynam lost his job because of the underachievement of a team led by a pair of 23-year-olds.

But by finishing the season with 16 wins in the last 21 games, and earning the Bullets' first trip to the playoffs in eight seasons with Sunday's victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Howard and Webber said they feel somewhat vindicated.

"Truthfully, Juwan and I get the brunt of unfair [criticism] sometimes. We're not as good as everybody says we are, but we're not as bad as everyone says we are," Webber said. "Getting to the playoffs for us is a long time in coming, and it's just good to be involved in something that was worth something."

It may not be accurate, but the criticism goes along with the territory for two players who will make a combined $164 million in salary from the Bullets in the coming years. To their credit, Webber and Howard showed they had enough pride to play a major role in the team's resurgence.

Howard shot poorly Sunday (4-for-14), but he played perhaps his best ball in the previous two months, averaging 19.4 points and 8.0 rebounds.

Webber, an NBA All-Star this season, was consistent the entire season. He was one of just three players in the league to average better than 20 points and 10 rebounds (Patrick Ewing and Vin Baker were the others). Webber had 23 points and 17 rebounds in Sunday's clincher.

"I don't think this was unique to Webber," coach Bernie Bickerstaff said of Sunday's performance. "What's significant is great players step up in prime time."

Added point guard Rod Strickland: "He's been our most consistent player in all areas -- rebounds, scoring, assists, blocked shots. He's the one player who has done it from Day One to now."

Had the Bullets been successful the entire season, Howard and Webber might be receiving accolades as one of the best forward combinations in the league.

In terms of rebounding and scoring, they are the most productive pair. Webber (20.1 points, 22nd in the NBA; 10.3 rebounds, sixth) and Howard (19.1 points, 24th; 8.0 rebounds) were the only forwards on the same team to each average better than 19 points and eight boards.

Now the team has the best platform possible to show off its skills, opening the playoffs against the Chicago Bulls. A good showing against the defending NBA champions could establish a confidence that could carry over to next season, when the Bullets become the Washington Wizards.

The Bullets, who won one of three games against Chicago this season, don't plan on being intimidated in Friday night's opener.

"We have much respect for Chicago, but we want to win just as much as they do," Howard said. "When we won that one game, it put extra confidence in us. We have high expectations. We want to be a contender, not a pretender."

To be a contender, a team first has to make the playoffs. And while doing so in the final game of the season was not the way Howard and Webber pictured it, they are still proud of the accomplishment -- one of the goals they talked about during their off-season chat.

"It just feels good that we promised each other that we would do this," Webber said. "Eight weeks ago, nobody thought we would be in it; they thought we should have packed it in. But we made it."

Pub Date: 4/22/97

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