Jordan makes an early return

Expected back Sunday, Wizard gets 16 minutes, 7 points in 107-75 win

March 21, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

DENVER - Flashbulbs popped, teen-aged girls screamed and there was a measurable buzz around the Pepsi Center last night, which could mean only one thing:

Michael Jordan is back.

Jordan made his return here last night after 12 games on the injured list with torn cartilage in his right knee, just in time to take part in the Washington Wizards' 107-75 pasting of the Denver Nuggets.

Jordan, who had arthroscopic surgery on Feb. 27, played 16 minutes, chipping in seven points - the third time this season he not reached double figures - as he looked more to be in the mode of getting accustomed to playing again than taking over.

He shot 2-for-9 from the field and missed his last five shots, but his presence was largely unnecessary as the Wizards (32-36) cruised to their second straight victory - third in four games - to stay in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, 2 1/2 games behind Charlotte for the eighth and final playoff spot.

"We are running out of games and he wants to win," Wizards coach Doug Collins said. "It would have been nice if we had been in better position as far as the playoffs are concerned, but we are not. You know Mike. He wants to play. He wants to contribute."

Any drama that might have been attached to the game was largely gone by halftime and obliterated in the hail of a 21-2 Washington run that started the third quarter and gave the Wizards a 75-41 lead with 6:34 left in the period.

By the fourth quarter, the only thing of interest for the crowd to cheer for was the Nuggets' mascot to make a half-court shot, then give the ball - which he had Jordan autograph during the game - to a lucky fan.

Richard Hamilton led all scorers with 30 points.

Jordan's return was a bit of a surprise, especially since he had told reporters after Tuesday's practice here that he would almost certainly not play against Denver or tonight at Utah.

Jordan had not been expected to play until possibly Sunday in Toronto, and certainly not before he took part in a full contact practic.

"Mike recognized the importance of this game [and] the rest of our games," Collins said. "He feels if he can help us in any way he wants to play. He said he would like to be activated and play a few minutes tonight. So we went on that."

After taking part in a 90-minute workout here Tuesday and in yesterday morning's shoot-around, Jordan told Collins that he was ready to be activated.

"It was the first he had really run around hard on it [the knee], so he was waiting to make sure when he woke up this morning that he was feeling good," Collins said before the game. "When he did, I think he thought he could move forward."

Jordan made his initial appearance with 2:55 remaining in the first quarter, drawing a standing ovation from the Pepsi Center crowd. He missed his first two shots, but sank an 18-foot jumper from the left baseline. He also hit a turnaround and was fouled with 23.7 seconds to go in the period, playing four minutes in that stretch.

Jordan, who was out of the starting lineup for the first time since April 5, 1986, when he was with Chicago - a streak of 883 consecutive starts - missed his last three shots of the first half. He looked occasionally winded, particularly considering that he was making his comeback at a mile above sea level.

Jordan's presence in the first half was largely superfluous since the Wizards broke open a 17-all tie with 4:51 to go in the first quarter with a 13-8 run, capped by Jordan's turnaround and foul shot with 23.7 seconds to go. That gave Washington a 30-25 lead.

The Wizards then opened the second quarter with a 16-6 run, punctuated by a slam dunk by Kwame Brown, making his third start of the season, that put Washington up 46-31. The woeful Nuggets, whose mascot was sporting a Jordan jersey, could get no closer, as Washington, despite shooting only 42 percent for the first two quarters, took a 54-39 halftime lead.

NOTES: Guard Hubert Davis was put on the injured list (strained right thumb) to make roster space for Jordan. ... Chris Whitney left the game with neck spasms.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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