Wizards dance all over Pistons

Howard scores 35 in 110-96 victory

Strickland on bench

January 01, 2001|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a season filled with misery and a recent dollop of controversy, the Washington Wizards will at least be able to end the millennium with this small bit of consolation: They aren't the worst team in the NBA.

The Wizards closed the 2000 portion of the season with a 110-96 victory over the Detroit Pistons last night before an announced crowd of 13,132 at MCI Center that more closely resembled an intimate gathering of family and friends.

Still, those who gathered saw Washington (6-25) not only play its best game in weeks, piling up a season high in points, surpassing the 109 it piled up in games against Boston in November, but also avoid the league cellar, pulling a half-game ahead of Chicago (5-25), which won earlier in the day against New Jersey.

"Our guys played with what appeared to be a rejuvenated focus," coach Leonard Hamilton said. "I'm hoping that this is a new year and we can put the things that happened to us last year behind us and start the new year off well."

Juwan Howard, who has borne the brunt of the fans' ire until recently, torched the soft Detroit interior for a season-high 35 points, including sinking 15 of 17 free throws.

"I was trying to win the ball game and take advantage of the mismatches," Howard said.

The Wizards, who led by as many as 18 in the first period, only to see Detroit (13-18) take a slight second-quarter lead, blew the game open with a 17-2 run to close the third period, breaking a six-game losing skein.

Point guard Chris Whitney, in his third straight start, and reserve guard Richard Hamilton traded three-pointers in the run, while Howard hit four foul shots.

The Pistons, who spent the second half looking more interested in taking in the post-game O'Jays concert, had three players foul out in a ragged contest, marred by a combined total of 71 fouls. Jerry Stackhouse led Detroit with 25 points.

Meanwhile, the curious soap opera of guard Rod Strickland added another chapter as he missed last night's game with ailing hamstrings.

Strickland, who missed the team flight to Miami on Friday night and was suspended for the game, costing him approximately $110,000 of his $10 million annual salary, has been hampered throughout the season by his hamstrings.

However, the 6-foot-3 guard, who was fined for missing a Tuesday practice before Wednesday's game with the Knicks, participated in the morning shoot-around earlier yesterday, but did not take part in pre-game warm-ups before the game.

Strickland said after the game that he "pretty much" knew after the shoot-around that he would not be able to play and notified the team trainer and doctor, a sentiment concurred by Hamilton and assistant general manager Rod Higgins. Strickland would not speculate on whether he would be available to play tomorrow night against Minnesota.

"He came in and told us that he was sore and that he couldn't play," Higgins said.

On the floor, the Wizards opened the game with one of their best quarters of the season, scoring 36 points in the first frame - matching a season high for a quarter - and shooting 57 percent from the field.

Howard, a prime target of MCI Center boo-birds this season, what with a $15 million contract, scored Washington's first seven points on the way to a 13-point quarter. And the Wizards, who led 29-11 with 3:51 to go in the period, looked on their way to an easy night, a decided rarity in this trail of tragedy season.

"We gave the crowd something to encourage them to cheer. They kind of fed off our enthusiasm," Hamilton said. "But you have to generate your own enthusiasm, and normally, the fans will respond to how you're playing. We played well, and they responded. We enjoyed, and I'm sure our fans enjoyed seeing us get off the losing column for a change."

But while the Pistons' second unit, led by former Syracuse standout forward John Wallace, who had nine of his 21 points in the second quarter, trimmed the Wizards' lead in the period, Washington, for a change, held its poise and responded in the third.

"In the NBA, each game is basically a game of runs," said Whitney, who had 13 points and five assists in 41 minutes on a bad right ankle. "We got out in the first quarter and they came back, but we maintained our composure. We came out in the third quarter, got back into it, and that was the end of the game."

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