Wizards stunted, but not their youth

Younger players rally Washington, but Indiana wins, stays in playoff hunt

April 15, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - With this year's playoffs an impossibility, the Washington Wizards have officially reached the point in the season where moral victories actually mean as much as the real ones.

The Wizards didn't get an actual win yesterday, dropping an 86-80 decision to the Indiana Pacers at MCI Center, but they got continued improvement from their kiddie corps.

Rookies Bobby Simmons and Kwame Brown and second-year player Etan Thomas made important defensive contributions, with assistance from veteran Tyrone Nesby, in the second quarter when the Wizards (36-45) erased a 12-point deficit and took the lead.

"Etan right now wishes the season was just getting starting," said Washington coach Doug Collins, whose team was eliminated from playoff contention Friday night. "I think Kwame ... and Bobby Simmons do, too. And Nes. Those four guys have really been a huge light for us. And we talked about being more physical next season, and those four guys all bring a physicalness, and that's encouraging."

The Pacers hit 10 straight shots to end the first quarter and take a 30-18 lead after the first quarter. But with Simmons, Thomas, Brown, Nesby and Tyronn Lue on the floor, the Wizards shut Indiana down, holding them to 5-for-14 from the field in the second quarter.

"That's one thing we stress when we're out there on the floor," said Simmons, who, along with Chris Whitney, led Washington in scoring with 12 points. "We have to play defense to give ourselves a chance to win each game."

Washington led 65-64 going into the fourth quarter, but the Pacers (40-40), who are locked with Milwaukee and Toronto in a three-team race for the final two Eastern Conference playoff spots, responded with a 10-0 run early in the period. Jermaine O'Neal started that burst with an assist and layup, finishing with a game-high 26 points on 10-for-18 shooting.

The Wizards answered with a burst of their own, but Reggie Miller hit a three-pointer with three minutes to go to give Indiana an 83-78 lead. The Pacers won their third straight.

"That's Reggie Miller," Thomas said. "We've seen him do that for years. That's no big surprise. You can't fault our effort, but they hit some big shots and that's what he does."

Said Collins: "In that second quarter, our bench team came in and was terrific. We had a chance right to the finish, but Reggie Miller came in and hit a big three, just as he always does. We took some bad shots, and I told our guys that that's one area that we've got to be better at. It hurt us on a lot of occasions this year."

Thomas turned in his third strong performance in as many games, with six points and a team-high 10 rebounds in 31 minutes, to make a strong push to win a starting power forward slot next season.

"We're in a situation this year where we had to work hard and learn a lot," Thomas said. "There was a lot of teaching going on. We can learn a lot from each other. All the young players are going to push each other this summer the way we pushed each other this season."

Said Collins: "Just seeing Etan attacking that board and playing with that kind of vengeance is great. I know Wes [Unseld, general manager] is smiling, because he played that way. Just go after that ball, and that's what Etan's doing right now. When you go after that ball, it's wonderful to watch."

The Wizards close the regular season tomorrow at MCI Center against the New York Knicks.

Next for Wizards

Opponent:New York Knicks in season finale

Site:MCI Center, Washington

When:Tomorrow, 7 p.m.

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

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