No longer perfect, Wizards hear the boos Pacers hand Washington first loss at MCI Center, 99-81, unleashing chorus

January 03, 1998|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Somehow, the Washington Wizards thought things at the MCI Center were different. They thought that their 8-0 record in the new building meant something. They believed they had earned some respect from their fans.

They thought wrong.

The Wizards lost at the MCI Center for the first time last night. And all of that pent-up booing by fans was unleashed during and after the 99-81 defeat to the Indiana Pacers that dropped Washington below .500 (16-17).

The fans booed bad turnovers. They booed missed shots. They booed Juwan Howard when he left the game with a little more than three minutes remaining. And some even stayed until the lopsided affair was over, so they could boo the Wizards as they walked off the court.

"This basketball team has played 17, 18, 19 consistent games and has really played well here at the MCI Center," said Wizards coach Bernie Bickerstaff. "To get booed like that -- I think they deserved better.

Said Howard, who left the game after a 19-point, eight-rebound outing: "My body gets numb thinking about that. Sometimes you're going to have nights like this, and you're not going to win them all. It's depressing when you come out and try to do your best to win and receive a welcome like that.

"But it's something we should have been used to because of how we were treated at the USAirways Arena," Howard added. "But it felt a little different because it was our first loss here."

It was not a pretty game for the Wizards, who suffered through their third-worst shooting game of the season (36.3 percent). Aside from Terry Davis (3-for-6 from the field), none of the starting five hit half of his shots: Howard hit six of 18, Chris Webber nine of 19, Rod Strickland five of 13 and Calbert Cheaney none of five.

"Oooh, weee -- that's bad," Strickland said after picking up a box score and seeing that in addition to his poor shooting he had three assists (more than seven under his league-best average) and seven turnovers. "We didn't play well, and I stunk it up. I just didn't have it."

But this wasn't a game in which the Wizards were just flat-out bad. The Pacers had a lot to do with making Washington look bad. First-year coach Larry Bird has a veteran team: Four of the five usual starters have at least nine years of NBA experience. And it's an unselfish team that, one season after not making the playoffs, has started 20-10 -- the best in the team's NBA history.

Indiana led by as many as 20 points in the first half, and 21 in the second. Washington made a fourth-quarter run but could only get within 10 points.

"If we play together, we'll have success," said Bird, who received a warm ovation as he entered the court before the game. "To win games in this league, you have to play defense. Our defense was sharp."

What makes the Indiana defense so solid is the play of 7-foot-4 Rik Smits, who had four blocks and seven rebounds to go along with his game-high 22 points.

At times he didn't even have to jump defensively, his presence alone forcing Washington players into bad decisions.

Howard started the game with what appeared to be a mismatch against Chris Mullin, but the Wizards were never able to exploit that because of Indiana's collapsing defense led by Smits.

"He's a great big man, an intimidator," said Webber, who had three blocks. "They're a great team, and we want to get to that point. It's always great to have a veteran core group like that."

And that was about the extent that Webber was talking last night, not wanting to let his feelings show about walking off the court and getting jeered.

During the final minutes of the game, Webber sat along the baseline on the east side of the arena, stared blankly at the ceiling and tried to tune out the crowd turning on the Wizards.

"We're upset, but losing wasn't the thing that hurt the most," Webber said. "I have nothing to say about the fans. I've been very honest about them for four years. I just think it's time to shut up."

NOTES: Washington guard Tim Legler was activated last night and played 19 minutes in his first game of the season. Legler, who suffered a sore right hamstring in training camp, hit one of five shots and scored five points. Legler had missed 32 games. To make room for Legler, Lorenzo Williams (sore left knee) was placed on the injured list after a magnetic resonance imaging test. Williams missed 57 games last season because of left knee injuries. He was averaging 1.9 points and 1.9 rebounds in 14 games this season.

Indiana ...23 34 19 23 -- 99

Washington 20 20 19 22 -- 81

Pub Date: 1/03/98

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