WASHINGTON - As Washington Wizards coach Doug Collins saw it, his team's task for last night was to keep the jump-shot happy Milwaukee Bucks from congregating around the arc and launching three-pointers all night.
The Wizards mostly got that accomplished, allowing the Bucks to hit just three of 15 bonus shots, but Washington's porous interior defense let the Bucks score at practically every important moment, as Milwaukee grabbed an 85-82 victory at MCI Center.
The Bucks, who got a combined 11 points from their starting power forward and center, nonetheless pounded Washington inside, outscoring the Wizards 36-20 in the paint. Gary Payton and Sam Cassell drove the lane at will, combining for 42 of Milwaukee's points.
"We were impatient," Collins said. "Offensively, we were as impatient as we have been all year. They played a zone, which we have seen all year long. Finally, when our guys settled down and got the ball where I asked them to get it, we got great shots."
The loss was doubly crippling because the Wizards (30-32), who entered the night tied with Milwaukee for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot, fell a game back. It also dropped the season series to the Bucks (31-31) two games to one, thus relinquishing the tiebreaker edge to Milwaukee.
"I'm pretty sure it will come back to haunt us eventually," said Christian Laettner, who had 19 points and eight rebounds. "We knew it was a big game. We wanted to win it. We gave it our all in most respects. I think we were trying too hard.
"Once we calmed down, we did all right, but we never could get over the hump. We were close and we couldn't get a big stop and when it was tied or we could have went up, we missed shots and couldn't get layups. We had lots of opportunities, but you've got to give to the Bucks. They did all the right things."
Said Michael Jordan, who had a game-high 27 points: "We've had some injuries and we can always use that as a bailout, but at the end of the day, we've been given some great opportunities. Orlando lost tonight [to New York], so we didn't lose that much ground. It's amazing with how many games we've given away that we should have won, that we're still in the thick of things. It's not like we're out of the race yet. We just have to put together a streak and that's so hard to do with a young team."
The Wizards, trailing by as much as 13 in the fourth quarter, trimmed the Milwaukee lead to two at the 2:52 mark when Larry Hughes hit one of two free throws. But Desmond Mason, obtained with Payton in a trade deadline deal with Seattle, hit an off-balance three-pointer from in front of the Washington bench over Jordan with 1:44 remaining to take the Milwaukee lead back to five points and keep the Wizards scrambling.
The Wizards got the lead back to three, then traded free throws in the final 20 seconds before getting the ball for a final possession with 18 seconds to go in regulation. Jerry Stackhouse, who scored just one point in the fourth quarter, mishandled the ball, then passed to Laettner, who found Hughes for what appeared to be an open jumper. However, Hughes passed it off to Jordan, whose three try at the buzzer fell short over Payton.
With 20 games to play, the Wizards have essentially reduced their margin of error to practically nothing, threatening to send Jordan home at the end of his career without a playoff berth to show for his return.
"That [the team's play] doesn't sit well," said Jordan. "We're at a crucial part of the season. We're five months into the season and we should not be making the same mistakes that you made the first month. We progress and regress in the same week. That gives us more ground to cover to try to get back to that same point of intensity."
Next for Wizards
Opponent:New York Knicks
Site:Madison Square Garden, New York
When:Tomorrow, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio:Chs. 2, 7/WTEM (980 AM)