Slow start finishes Wizards as Hornets prevail, 87-75

Down 15 early, Washington is 1-3 since All-Star break

February 20, 2003|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS -- Sometimes in basketball, it really is about how you start, as opposed to how you finish. Just ask the Washington Wizards.

The Wizards spent most of the last three quarters last night against the New Orleans Hornets trying to overcome their poor first quarter, during which they fell behind by as many as 15 points.

Helped by 18 turnovers by the Hornets, the Wizards got close enough to apply some heat, but they stumbled again at the finish and fell, 87-75.

"We have not been able to get defensive stops when we needed them this year," Washington coach Doug Collins said. "They out-rebound us by 16. We shoot 38 percent. We miss nine free throws. And it's still 75-71 with about five minutes to go, but we have not been able to get defensive stops when we needed to all year long. That's been the story of our season."

Indeed, the Wizards (25-28) particularly couldn't get stops on New Orleans forward Jamal Mashburn, who was largely quiet in the game's middle, but torched Washington at both ends.

Mashburn scored 11 points in the first quarter, then dropped in nine of the Hornets' last 11 during the final five minutes to break open the contest.

"Those are shots that you don't expect him to hit," Wizards guard Jerry Stackhouse said. "Watching him play, I don't really see him hit those shots. Tonight, he did."

The Wizards, who lost for the third time in four games since the All-Star break and the seventh time in eight road games, had something of a built-in excuse, as the confluence of the break and this week's snowstorm had joined to keep them off the floor for all but three games and two practices over a 15-day span.

Last night's game was the first since Friday in Utah, and the rust was evident from the start, as Washington shot just 28 percent in the first quarter.

"We missed a lot of easy shots," said Michael Jordan, who had 20 points on 8-for-23 shooting. "I know I missed a lot of easy shots. The layoff hurt us in terms of our rhythm. We missed free throws. Jerry Stackhouse is our best free-throw shooter and he missed three free throws."

Even Stackhouse, who returned to the lineup for the first time in five games after nursing a strained right groin muscle, had an excuse, as he shot just 6-for-15 for 15 points.

But the Wizards had no excuse for the rebounding disadvantage or for getting only 10 points off 18 turnovers by New Orleans (29-27).

The best example of how the Wizards let the Hornets off the hook came at the end of the first half, when, trailing 41-40 with 5.5 seconds to go, Washington let New Orleans score five points in that stretch.

First, David Wesley was fouled attempting a three-pointer, and he converted two of three free throws with just under two seconds remaining, then George Lynch stole the inbounds pass and hit a three-pointer that just beat the horn and survived a referee's video review.

"Instead of us maybe having a lead at the end of the half, we go down six and they hit a big shot that gets them going in the third quarter," Stackhouse said. "We played OK. We played enough to be in the game and really hang around, but I never really thought that we really had control of the game. They were still dictating, and we can't play that way."

Kwame Brown had a solid game off the bench with 13 points and nine rebounds, and Larry Hughes had 11 points and five assists before leaving the game late in the fourth quarter with a sprained right ankle. Post-game X-rays on the ankle were negative.

The loss knocked Washington out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, a half-game behind the idle Orlando Magic.

Trailing 27-16 after one quarter, the Wizards, going largely with Stackhouse and a second unit of Charles Oakley, Brown, Hughes and Bryon Russell, slowly climbed back into the contest in the second quarter, going on a 12-3 run to pull to 30-28 with 5:28 to go in the half.

Washington forced ties at 32, 36 and 38, but could never take the lead.

Next for Wizards

Opponent:New Jersey Nets

Site:MCI Center, Washington

When:Tomorrow, 7 p.m.

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

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