NEW YORK - What began with more hype and electricity than any season-opening game in recent NBA history fizzled instead of sizzled for Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards last night against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
Jordan was quieted by a double-teaming Knicks defense and an erratic jump shot, and the Wizards couldn't hold a fourth-quarter lead in a 93-91 defeat.
Making his return to the NBA after a three-year absence and playing before a worldwide audience, Jordan finished with 19 points on 7-for-21 shooting to go along with six assists, five rebounds and four steals. But he missed a couple of big shots, including a potential game-tying three with 18 seconds to play.
Jordan's shooting problems might have been the result of him missing the past few days of practice with a sore knee. New Wizards coach Doug Collins, who had kept practice closed for most of the preseason, disclosed Jordan's injury after the game.
"My knee was bothering me, but I felt good tonight, I didn't have any aching or pain at all," said Jordan. "That may have been why I didn't shoot the ball particularly well because I wasn't able to shoot the last couple of days. In the fourth quarter, I was just trying to move the ball ahead of the double teams."
But he admitted that he was a different player last night than the one who ended the 1998 NBA Finals with a shot to beat the Utah Jazz.
"I guess the biggest difference is that I'm a little bit older than the last time I shot the ball," said Jordan, alluding to the shot that beat the Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals to clinch a third straight title for the Chicago Bulls.
"My game's a little different, and my teammates are a little different. Obviously the outcome is a little different than the one I wanted, but I feel good about myself and I feel good about what the team did tonight, and we have to continue to work in the right direction."
What wasn't different for the Wizards was the way they played defense, particularly in the second half. After doing a good job controlling Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston early, Washington watched Sprewell and Houston take turns hitting jump shots in finishing with 28 points and 22 points, respectively.
"I was really proud of our guys," said Collins, before his team headed to Atlanta for tomorrow's game against the Hawks. "We gave ourselves a chance to win. The Knicks are a great team in close games. I thought the difference was the experience some of their guys have in big games."
Jordan's final miss came on a three-point try from 25 feet away with 18 seconds remaining and the Wizards trailing 91-88. Forward Kurt Thomas grabbed the rebound and was fouled, making both free throws. Chris Whitney, who had kept the Wizards close with 18 points off the bench, hit a three with 0.9 seconds left, but the Wizards would get no closer.
"It was pretty rushed," said Jordan, who took only six shots in the second half. "It came up short. My shots were pretty flat tonight."
Expecting to see Jordan repeat one of the many magic moments he had produced in this building in the past, Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy was surprised when Jordan's final shot didn't fall.
"I think we're always surprised," said Van Gundy.
After leading by as many as 11 points in the second quarter, the Wizards watched as the Knicks closed to 43-41 by halftime and then charged ahead by as much as 64-54 with 3:28 left in the third quarter. With help from reserves Whitney, Popeye Jones (13 points, seven rebounds) and Tyrone Nesby (nine points), Washington managed to take a 76-73 lead on a three-pointer by Whitney and increased that lead to five on a basket by Kwame Brown. But the 19-year-old rookie went down in a heap when he turned his ankle with 5:34 left.
Brown had been active in moments of his 12-minute debut, blocking three shots and pulling down three rebounds. Though Collins had planned to replace Brown down the stretch, his absence allowed the Knicks at least one crucial second-chance basket.
"Kwame did a nice job," Collins said of the team and league's top draft choice. "Hopefully it [the ankle injury] is not too serious."
After Washington cut its deficit to one on a three by Nesby, 87-86, with 2:24 left, Sprewell scored after Mark Jackson missed a three-pointer. Jordan made a 17-footer to make it 89-88 with 1:11 to play, but fired wide on a 17-footer on the next possession.
An offensive rebound by Othella Harrington resulted in two free throws for the Knicks with 34.4 seconds left, and after Jordan missed his long three, Thomas made his free throws for a 93-88 lead. The Wizards had one more chance after Whitney stole a pass and made a three to cut it to 93-91.
The Wizards then fouled Jackson, who after missing the first of two free throws with 0.6 seconds left, purposely banged his second attempt off the backboard and front rim. Jones got the rebound, but his length-of-the-court, one-handed toss sailed well wide.