Wizards look fine-tuned, 104-87 Victory over Nets ends hard week on high note

January 25, 1998|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- At the end of a rather tumultuous week centering on Chris Webber's arrest, the Washington Wizards seemed to focus on one thing last night -- basketball.

Looking to salvage a split of a six-game homestand, the Wizards came through with their most convincing win in nearly a month, defeating the New Jersey Nets, 104-87, before a sellout crowd at MCI Center.

The win was also big in that it moved the Wizards (22-21) above .500 and allowed them to pick up a full game in the standings on New Jersey, which is third in the Atlantic Division. The Wizards moved within 1 1/2 games of the Nets (23-19).

"It's important to beat anybody when it comes down to our division," said Wizards forward Tracy Murray, who scored 22 points off the bench in 24 minutes. "Every game right now for us is huge. We want to move up, and the best way is to beat the teams ahead of you."

You could call this game a bit of a payback after the Wizards blew a lead in a 99-91 loss at New Jersey on Dec. 29. In that game, Nets rookie Keith Van Horn scored 32 points, with some of those baskets coming at the expense of Webber.

There would not be a replay last night. Van Horn, who had scored in double figures in 23 of his 24 games before last night, missed nine of 12 shots and finished with seven points.

"I wanted to come out and make sure he didn't have the type of night he had last time," Webber said. "I did some things differently, I don't want to say what."

The game proved to be a defensive gem for Webber, but he also had a solid offensive game, matching Murray's game-high 22 points, the 14th straight game that Webber has score 20 or more. The 6-foot-10 forward also had 10 rebounds and eight assists.

"He probably had a quadruple double with rebounds, points and turnovers [five]," joked Washington coach Bernie Bickerstaff. "I'm more impressed that he took the ball to the basket off the dribble. I don't think anybody can stop him taking the ball to the basket."

In fact, Webber made five of six free throws, which is most impressive when you consider that he had failed to take a foul shot in three of his five games before last night, and just one in another game.

Webber had been relying on his jump shots, but last night he demonstrated how effective he can be in attacking the basket.

"It was definitely a concerted decision," Webber said. "My whole career, I never tried to get fouled that much. But I'm getting better with my free throws, so I want to go more to the hole."

The Wizards led by as many as 26 points, but they started the game slowly, missing their first eight shots. But after falling behind by five early, Washington went on an 18-0 run in the first quarter, holding New Jersey scoreless for a stretch of 5: 10.

Bickerstaff, thoroughly displeased with his team's effort in Wednesday's loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, was happy about the way the team played last night.

"We played with a purpose," Bickerstaff said. "I thought we played well consistently."

Though the win was impressive, the giddiness displayed in the locker room afterward may have been misplaced. Calbert Cheaney spoke about the team being "back on track." Juwan Howard (20 points) talked about being "just five games" behind the Miami Heat.

The reality: The Wizards just finished a 3-3 homestand during which they nearly got beat by the Los Angeles Clippers and Vancouver Grizzlies. If they can now go out and sweep their upcoming three games on the road -- at Indiana, Boston and Detroit -- they can add legitimacy to their claims of turning the corner.

"For us, it's good to get a win," said point guard Rod Strickland. "Now we have to go on the road and give a good effort."

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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