Strickland points Wizards past Suns Guard's 26 points, 11 assists light way to 109-99 victory

January 05, 1998|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Had Jason Kidd stayed healthy, maybe the Phoenix Suns could have slowed Washington Wizards point guard Rod Strickland. Maybe.

But without Kidd, who was limited to 13 minutes by a sprained ankle, the Suns were left to watch helplessly as Strickland dissected their defense.

Perhaps driven by his poor performance in Friday's loss to the Indiana Pacers, when he had three assists and seven turnovers, Strickland responded by flirting with a triple double -- 26 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds -- in a 109-99 win over the Suns before a crowd of 20,674 yesterday at the MCI Center.

For Washington (17-17), it was an impressive way to rebound from Friday's 18-point loss to Indiana that ended the team's perfect record at MCI.

Juwan Howard scored 13 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter and added 10 rebounds, and Chris Webber had 22 points as the Wizards helped coach Bernie Bickerstaff win his 300th career game.

"I thank the players for the wins and the losses," said Bickerstaff, 53, the 38th coach in NBA history to record 300 wins. "I have been fortunate to be around good players and good management. For a guy from Benham, Kentucky, I'm just glad to be here."

And Bickerstaff is glad to be coaching a point guard like Strickland, perhaps the best player in the league to never have played in an All-Star Game. With this year's game in his hometown of New York just over a month away, Strickland is surely making a statement to be a first-time participant.

His 10.6 assists lead the league, and he has been solid at his position the entire season. Strickland was off to a good start even before Kidd got injured in the second quarter. By halftime Strickland had 18 points, hitting eight of nine shots.

And once Kidd left, Strickland punished Phoenix reserve point guard Steve Nash by going to his post-up game. By the end of the game Phoenix coach Danny Ainge had attempted to defend Strickland with 6-foot-8 forward George McCloud.

"We needed Jason in there defensively," Ainge said. "I thought [McCloud] did a good job on him, but Strickland killed us. Absolutely killed us. And he opened up a lot of things for everybody else."

Unlike Friday's game, when the Wizards fell into a hole early, they scored the game's first 12 points and never trailed.

On a team dominated by the play of its guards, the Suns have little inside game except for second-year forward Antonio McDyess. But two of McDyess' shots were blocked early by Webber, and he was never much of an offensive factor despite scoring 16 points.

Former Washington Bullet Rex Chapman, who scored 31 of his season-high 33 points in the first three quarters, was a factor. He rallied the Suns, who fought back twice to tie the game in the second half. The last time came with 9: 38 left on a three-pointer by McCloud.

But Webber gave the Wizards the lead for good on a three-pointer with 8: 50 left on a feed from -- who else? -- Strickland. After hitting an array of shots with a high degree of difficulty through three quarters, Strickland, whose mother and other family members from New York were in attendance, turned into a playmaker in the fourth when he had six of his 11 assists.

"I was disappointed in my play in the Indiana game because I didn't have any energy," Strickland said. "I just wanted to come out and play harder. We all wanted to come out and play harder."

FTC Bickerstaff said he sensed during Saturday's practice that Strickland and his teammates were a bit upset from Friday's performance, which ended with the home fans booing the team off the floor.

"That's when you get better -- you have to recognize that you have a bad game," Bickerstaff said. "When Rod plays well, that makes it easier for this team. You have to have a good point guard to compete."

And Ainge knows that. When Kidd and Johnson are healthy, he has two pretty good point guards of his own. But he left yesterday gushing about Strickland.

"I was talking to our team [yesterday] morning and saying he's probably the most underrated player in the game," said Ainge, whose Suns had won three straight on the road. "I think he's

fantastic, every time I see him. I think he's a great player and he dominated the game."

Pub Date: 1/05/98

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