Trying to stay afloat, Wizards thrown line by Nuggets, 103-87

Easy victory begins tough homestand vs. Bucks, Mavs, Lakers

March 27, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Washington Wizards were in desperate need of a life preserver to stay in the Eastern Conference playoff race, and, as if on cue, the Denver Nuggets arrived at MCI Center last night.

For the second time in a week, the Wizards treated the Nuggets more like a giant floating pool toy than a basketball team, coming out with a sense of urgency and eventually drubbing Denver, 103-87.

With Indiana's 96-77 loss to Detroit last night, the Wizards (33-38) gained a game on the Pacers, who hold the eighth and final Eastern postseason slot. Washington is 2 1/2 games behind Indiana with 11 games to play, and is on a four-game homestand after a seven-game road trip.

"It was a good win," Washington coach Doug Collins said. "We had a lot of good things happen for us. It was a nice way to get home."

Last night's game was also a pretty good way for the Wizards to get the taste of Sunday's 92-91 loss at Toronto out of their collective mouths and set out on squeaking their way into the playoffs.

"It was a must-win game and we realized that going in," said Courtney Alexander, one of four Wizards who scored in double figures with 14 points. "We really don't have any excuses. Our backs are completely to the wall, and we have to fight back and try to salvage this season."

To do so, the Wizards will likely need to win at least seven of their last 11 on a schedule that won't provide very many more buoys, as Washington will play only two more teams - the Memphis Grizzlies and New York Knicks - with losing records the rest of the way.

"Any win is big for us now," said guard Chris Whitney, who had a season-high 22 points. "We can't worry about what other teams are doing. We can hope they give us some help, but we have to go out there and concentrate on Wizards basketball."

In fact, the other three games on this current homestand, against the Milwaukee Bucks, Dallas Mavericks and defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, may provide the knockout punch for the Wizards, who have yet to win a game this season against any of those three teams, in four tries.

"It doesn't get any tougher, but this is what the league is all about," Alexander said. "We have no option but to go out and try to win these games. If we don't, then we're going to go home early."

Said Whitney: "There are definitely some tough teams out there, but we have to go out and compete. If we give ourselves a chance at the end, we feel comfortable that we're coming out with a victory."

Meanwhile, Michael Jordan, in his fourth game back from knee surgery, had nine points in 20 minutes, again coming off the bench, as he attempts to build his stamina for a postseason push.

"I feel good," said Jordan, who hit four of nine field-goal attempts. "When I'm loose, my game is pretty normal. I'm not here trying to make a career. I'm here trying to make this team develop and get some wins. If I have to come off the bench, that's cool. I have no problem with that, as long as the guys that are starting are doing their jobs because ultimately that's who's going to be the future of this team."

Last night's game in many respects resembled last week's 107-75 pasting in Denver. Though it didn't include the 21-2 third-quarter run the Wizards used to put away the hapless Nuggets (21-48), Washington, nonetheless, polished off Denver with a workmanlike first half, where it outscored the Nuggets 61-33.

"We were awful, we didn't play well at all," said Denver interim coach Mike Evans. "They got into us defensively and neither team was able to make any shots early, but they were able to make a run and we didn't respond well."

Richard Hamilton also scored 22 points to lead Washington, while reserve center Etan Thomas had a career-high 13 points.

Former Wizard Juwan Howard had 17 points in his first trip this season since being traded to Dallas last February and was booed every time he touched the ball. Donnell Harvey had a career-high 18 points for Denver.

Next for Wizards

Opponent: Milwaukee Bucks

Site: MCI Center, Washington

When: Friday, 7 p.m.

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WTEM (980 AM)

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