Wizards fill the gaps, 96-88

Jordan sets tone, but 3 others step up in rebuff of Clippers

January 09, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The obvious answer to the difference between this season's Washington Wizards and last season's edition is the presence of Michael Jordan, but in games such as last night's meeting with the Los Angeles Clippers, it's easy to see the team's transformation even within this season.

Again, Jordan was the cog in Washington's 96-88 win, coming up just two assists short of a triple double, but he was only one piece of what is increasingly becoming a well-oiled unit.

"If there's an epitome of a team, we're that," said Washington coach Doug Collins. "We're the sum of our components and the thing I'm happy about is when we get in some rough stretches, we can hang around and find ways to win. I think that's the sign of a sound team and I'm really happy abut that."

Those components, namely guards Chris Whitney and Hubert Davis and forward Popeye Jones, came up huge in the second half as the Wizards (18-14) fought off a sluggish performance with solid team defense and clutch shooting down the stretch.

Davis scored 14 of his 16 points in the third quarter to stake Washington to a 12-point lead at the end of the period, then Jones, who had 16 points and eight rebounds, hit two big jumpers in a fourth-quarter run that staved off a Clippers comeback.

"It's exciting being out there and competing," said Davis. "A lot of these guys have been here for a while and they haven't tasted winning. Being a part of this is fun."

Jordan had 18 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, but was largely a decoy in the fourth quarter as Whitney, Davis and Jones took turns playing hero in helping Washington to its sixth straight home win and the team's 13th victory in the last 15 games.

"It wasn't a pretty win, but we had some key guys step up to give us some minutes," said Jordan. "Popeye played extremely well defensively on [Elton] Brand, Hubert Davis got hot for us in the third quarter and Whitney hit a big three."

Clippers guard Jeff McInnis had 27 points to lead all scorers and Brand had 17, with a game-high 11 rebounds. Forward Lamar Odom missed the entire second half with stomach flu, while center Michael Olowokandi missed the fourth quarter with a bruised forearm.

The Clippers (18-17), who erased a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit here last year, sliced Washington's 12-point third-quarter lead to two with less than five minutes to go on a three-pointer by Eric Piatkowski.

But the resilient Wizards struck back, with Whitney, who had 18, hitting a three, then Jones hitting a pair of mid-range jumpers as he was left open by a defender sagging off Jordan, just as the Chicago Bulls' defenders did last Friday.

"He [Collins] has been encouraging me to take that shot," said Jones. "I feel really confident in taking that shot and making that shot, but at the same time, there's a part of me that says get Michael the ball late in the fourth quarter.

"Tonight, I just stepped up and took the shot with confidence and that's what I'm going to have to do to make my defender stay on me."

From there, Whitney made a free throw and Jordan hit a 16-footer to cap the decisive 10-0 run and eliminate any chance of Los Angeles repeating history.

"We have to first point to our coaching staff," said Jones. "They're very positive and they're very confident. And we build off that confidence. We know when we step onto that court that we're starting to get that kind of swagger that winners carry, that we could be down 20 in the fourth quarter, but we still feel that we can win the ball game.

"That swagger carries you a long way."

Said Jordan: "I felt like we could be better than we were last year. So far, we've proven that. When you win ugly games like this, that means you do it with defense. So those are big steps for us and that means we're moving in the right direction."

Jordan refused to comment after the game on questions about the decision of his wife, Juanita, to file for divorce in Chicago, saying twice that reporters' questions about the breakup were "none of your business."

Next for Wizards

Opponent: Milwaukee Bucks

Site: Bradley Center, Milwaukee

When: Friday, 8:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 50/WTEM (980 AM)

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