OAKLAND, Calif. - A guy dressed in a milk carton with a poster-sized picture of Michael Jordan across the front and holding a sign saying "Got Mike?" made his way around the Arena here last night, as if to mock his absence from the Washington Wizards.
And while Jordan may be back with the Wizards before they return home next week, all they really needed last night was Chris Whitney to pull out a hard-fought 99-96 win over the Golden State Warriors before the first non-sellout crowd this season.
Whitney, who had a team-high 20 points, hit a clutch three-pointer from the left wing with 12.8 seconds to go, then sank two free throws with 5.9 seconds remaining to give Washington (31-36) its second win in the past three games on a six-game Western swing.
"Normally, they say when you're on the road, you go for the win down two," said Whitney. "It [the three-point shot] was actually a great play. He [Washington coach Doug Collins] had Rip [Richard Hamilton] coming off, and of course, he's going to get a lot of attention, and then you had Christian [Laettner] coming out to screen for me. I was there for the shot."
Because of the shot, the Wizards stayed alive in the Eastern Conference postseason race, remaining 2 1/2 games behind the Charlotte Hornets for the eighth and final playoff spot.
"It was more than the shot," said Collins. "With about 12 minutes to go in the game, I told our guys we've worked too hard this season not to find a way to win this game. And they all looked at me and agreed."
Washington had trouble with Golden State's talented rookie backcourt of Jason Richardson and Gilbert Arenas, who combined for 46 points and shot 16-for-28 from the field.
Richardson, a former Michigan State standout, who won the league's slam dunk competition and was the Most Valuable Player in the Rookie Challenge at All-Star Weekend, also pulled down a team-high nine rebounds. Arenas, like Richardson in last year's NCAA tournament Final Four but with Arizona, dished out six assists.
But both missed key free throws in the final 37.5 seconds to open the door for Washington. Arenas was not only screened off Whitney's shot by Laettner, but he drew a controversial charging foul with 6.7 seconds to go when he drove into Popeye Jones, who was planted just outside the half-circle near the basket.
Meanwhile, Hamilton slogged through a sub-par shooting performance, hitting just six of 19 shots for 17 points. But Whitney, who had 14 of his 20 in the second half and all five of his fourth-quarter points in the final 12.8 seconds, was the difference.
"Before I took it, I had confidence that I could make it, but once it left my hand, you can tell when you're going to make the shot, and I knew it was good," said Whitney.
The Warriors (17-48), who had traded leads with the Wizards throughout most of the game, seemed to catch fire late in the third, when Chris Mills sank a three-pointer on the right wing and was wiped out on the play by Tyrone Nesby. Mills converted the free throw and set off a 10-2 run that spanned into the fourth quarter and gave Golden State an 85-78 lead with 9:12 to go.
But the Wizards hung tough through the fourth and outscored Golden State 15-6 in the final five minutes to claim the win.
Meanwhile, the Wizards, who are 4-8 since Jordan went on the injured list Feb. 26 with a cartilage tear in his right knee, might get him back by the time the trip ends Sunday in Toronto.
Jordan may join the team later this week toward the end of the Western portion of the trip (tomorrow night in Denver and Thursday in Utah) to practice with the team, before returning to the lineup.
Collins said Jordan would try to practice at least twice before returning.
Collins said before last night's game that Jordan told him the knee was responding well to workouts.
"He could show up any time," said Collins. "I think it could depend on how he's feeling. He may say, `Let's jump on my plane and let's go.' As of right now, I don't know."
Collins said Jordan, who had arthroscopic surgery Feb. 27, said the right knee feels "100 percent better than before he had the surgery" and the fact that he is doing defensive slides, as well as picking up the pace, "are all positive things."
Next for Wizards
Opponent: Denver Nuggets
Site: Pepsi Center, Denver
When: Tomorrow, 9 p.m.
TV/Radio: CSN/WTEM (980 AM)