WASHINGTON - Doug Collins is fond of saying that you can't love something until that thing has broken your heart. By that theory, his Washington Wizards must have enormous affection for the game of basketball because it has certainly given them significant angina of late.
For a fourth straight game, the Wizards took a superior opponent deep into the fourth quarter only to come away disappointed, this time to the Boston Celtics, who beat Washington, 104-99, last night at MCI Center.
The loss was Washington's fourth straight and 13th setback in 16 games.
"I think the guys hurt. At least I hope they do," said Collins, the Wizards' coach. "I want them to look into each other's eyes and I hope you see pain. These are four tough losses. But every day that we play in an environment like this in this kind of game, it's a real growth opportunity for our younger players. That's a good opportunity for them and they fought through it. We just couldn't come up with the big basket when we needed it and we couldn't get a stop."
The Wizards (29-34) particularly couldn't stop Boston's Paul Pierce, who torched them for 37 points - 16 in the fourth quarter - as the Celtics (36-27), who led by as much as 11 in the final quarter, twice staved off Washington runs that sliced the lead to two.
Both times Pierce, who had 18 points in the Celtics' 98-91 win over the Wizards on Sunday in Boston, personally inflicted the pain. After Richard Hamilton's three-pointer with 3:56 remaining capped an 8-0 run and cut the Boston lead to 90-88, Pierce drove to the basket, scored and was fouled by Courtney Alexander. He completed the three-point play to make the lead five.
Pierce brought down the final and most hurtful blow in the final 10 seconds. After Jahidi White scored on a put-back with 32.8 seconds left to make the score 99-96, the Celtics ran the 24-second clock down to the end, and Pierce, who was 5-for-9 from three-point range, hit a three with Alexander in his face with 8.8 seconds to go to clinch the deal.
"The guys found me and they expect me to deliver, the shot clock was winding down and we needed a bucket desperately," Pierce said. "They were coming back, and it was a just a big shot that lifted us for the win."
Said Hamilton, who had 31 points for Washington: "You've got to give him a lot of credit. He just didn't make wide-open shots, he made tough shots with hands in his face. He hit a couple of three-pointers in the fourth quarter that kept on putting the dagger in our hearts every time we kept on making a push to come back."
As in Sunday's game, the Wizards played sloppily, committing 21 turnovers, which the Celtics converted into 23 points. That was nine points more than Washington could muster off Boston's 17 miscues.
"We have to value the ball, and I told our guys that just because we're going to try and get up and down the floor a little bit, that doesn't mean that we're going to start kicking the ball all over the gym," said Collins. " ... Our margin of error is such that we can't throw the ball away 21 times against that kind of team and expect to beat them."
The loss sends the Wizards out onto a monster six-game, nine-day West Coast trip that includes stops at the Los Angeles Clippers, Seattle, Portland, Golden State, Denver and Utah. The Wizards will need at least a split to stay in the Eastern Conference playoff race, and anxiety is starting to permeate the locker room.
"This is really rough for us right now," forward Popeye Jones said. "It seems like the ball's not bouncing our way. If we make a run, we can't sustain that run or the other team makes a three-pointer or we have a crucial turnover. It seems like something is always happening in that fourth quarter to change that momentum back to the other team. We've got to figure out how to keep that momentum and drive to the finish line and win the game."
Next for Wizards
Opponent: Los Angeles Clippers
Site: Staples Center, Los Angeles
When: Tomorrow, 10:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: CN8/WTEM (980 AM)