Wizards blow large lead, lose third straight, 97-89

Ahead by 15 at halftime, they fall to Timberwolves

January 26, 2003|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - For all that has happened and all that is on the horizon, the fourth quarter of last night's Washington Wizards-Minnesota Timberwolves game was perhaps the defining moment of the Wizards' season.

The Wizards, having dropped two straight games already, with four tough contests coming this week, squandered a 15-point halftime lead, getting out-rebounded 15-2 in the third quarter, and desperately needed to make a stand in the final quarter to perhaps salvage their season.

But when the moment called for something special, the Wizards came up empty, dropping a 97-89 decision at MCI Center, their third straight loss, their fourth in the past five games, and a setback as ugly as it gets.

"You have to pull together, you have to form a fabric. You can't come apart like that so easily," said clearly frustrated Washington coach Doug Collins. "It just seems like the least little bit of adversity and a team makes a push at us, and we don't have anything to hold us together. So they made a run in the third quarter and tied us. There's still 12 minutes to go and we're in our building. We can still win the game. I'm not taking anything away from Minnesota. They're a good team. But that's not right."

Just as they had in Minneapolis in November, when they erased a 14-point Washington lead in the third quarter, the Timberwolves (26-18) made up a huge margin in the second half, after having played the previous night.

But what makes this Washington loss more painful than the one two months ago is that it leaves the Wizards (21-23) on a dangerous precipice.

The Wizards have a home game tomorrow against Phoenix, the fifth-best team in the Western Conference. That is followed by road games with Atlantic Division-leading New Jersey and Milwaukee, capped with a home game next Saturday against New Orleans, which manhandled the Wizards on Wednesday.

"This is a tough stretch for us, to be on the slide that we are with the forecast that we have coming up, with tough games before the break," said guard Jerry Stackhouse, who led all scorers with 21 points. "But we've been here before, and hopefully we'll be able to respond the way we have before. This is definitely time to step up."

In the final two minutes, as the Wizards were making a last desperate attempt to get back in the game, their two stars, Stackhouse and Michael Jordan, came up short.

Stackhouse missed two free throws with 1:28 remaining and the Wizards trailing by seven, while Jordan was stripped by Wally Szczerbiak with 28 seconds remaining. In the second half, Stackhouse and Jordan combined to shoot 5-for-17 from the floor.

"Basically, we're a better basketball team," said Jordan, who scored 17 points. "We've shown that we're a better basketball team. We just haven't been able to do it. That's very, very disappointing right now, that in this stretch that we're having, we play one half of basketball. That's not going to cut it."

The damage actually had been done in the third quarter, when Minnesota, which played a zone defense for most of the final three quarters, pounded the boards for second-chance points, helping itself to a 14-4 advantage in that stat in the second half.

In addition, Minnesota outscored Washington 24-6 in the paint in the second half, and 48-30 for the game.

Collins gave the Wizards a day off today from a scheduled practice.

"Losing has to get to the point that it hurts so much that you do something about it," Collins said. "Because losing is real easy. Winning is hard."

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