Wizards beat Sonics, 80-74, pass Bucks in playoff race

Washington gets second straight victory out West, takes over 8th spot in East

Pro Basketball

March 27, 2003|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE - Like a kid rummaging through the seat cushions for lost change, the Washington Wizards found an unexpected gift in Tuesday's win over the Portland Trail Blazers, their first on a make-or-break West Coast road trip.

Luckily for the Wizards, they have the ultimate lucky penny, Michael Jordan, in their couch, as he delivered a clutch fourth-quarter performance and an 80-74 victory over the Seattle SuperSonics at KeyArena last night.

With the Denver Nuggets giving them another gift, namely a 108-103 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Wizards moved into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, a half game ahead of Milwaukee (34-38). Washington (34-37) has 11 games to play.

Save for a dry spell near the end of the first half, the Wizards led nearly wire-to-wire last night in claiming their second win in four tries on their six-game Western swing.

In his final Seattle appearance, Jordan hit three big baskets in the final three minutes, scoring off a lay-in with 2:58, then hitting his trademark turnaround fadeaway from the baseline over Vladimir Radmanovic with 2:26 to go, followed by a turnaround with 1:45 remaining. Jordan finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds.

"I went out to try to feel the game and let the game come to me," Jordan said. "Tonight it was more a case of setting the tempo and not let us run after them, but [instead] let them play at our pace."

Said Wizards coach Doug Collins: "I told our coaches if we can get [Jordan] those shots in rhythm where he doesn't have to work so hard, he will knock them down. He hit big, big shots."

Point guard Tyronn Lue had his second consecutive strong game in as many starts, with 11 points and four assists, playing 45 minutes. Lue hit a critical three-pointer with 5:37 to go in the fourth quarter.

"On back-to-back [nights], I had to be able to conserve my energy as best I could," Lue said. "I couldn't pick up full court as much as I usually do. I had to pick and choose my spots out there, but I didn't get too worn down."

Jerry Stackhouse was also key, with 20 points, including a put-back with 15.2 seconds that sealed the contest.

The fourth quarter was hardly a thing of beauty as the two teams combined to score three baskets in the first 8:30 of the period. But the Wizards held off the Sonics (33-37), who are making a desperate push for a Western Conference playoff spot.

The Wizards now need either a win tomorrow night against the Los Angeles Lakers or Sunday against the Nuggets to not only gain a split on the West Coast trip, but also to make the turn for April with a tailwind behind them and a chance to grab a playoff berth.

"We can't even think about [the playoffs]," Stackhouse said. "What we need to think about is keeping it going and building on this. We can go into L.A. and shock the world. That will be a huge game for us and then with the last game of the trip, we need to try to ward off having a letdown."

The Wizards picked up an unexpected win in Seattle last year, as they were in nearly the same predicament, on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff chase looking in. In that game, Lue had a career-high 26 points and ran the offense efficiently.

Washington needed the same last night, as Larry Hughes, whom Lue replaced in the starting lineup in the 95-91 win over the Blazers on Tuesday night, suffered a flare-up of an ankle problem and was not in uniform. That left Lue to play nearly the entire first half without a breather, going 22 of the possible 24 minutes.

Lue ran the offense crisply, but it didn't take a genius to know what to do in the first quarter: Get the ball to Jordan, who missed his first two shots, then hit his next five in the quarter.

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