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Wizards Put It on Reserves

Backups Move to the Forefront to Help Hold Off Last-Place Hawks: Wizards 102, Hawks 99

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 31, 2005; Page D01

The Washington Wizards' plague of injuries and illnesses left them with a starting lineup that featured their second-string center (Etan Thomas) and third-string small forward (Laron Profit) against the lowly Atlanta Hawks, and before the night was over, they even had to rely on a second-string coach. Coach Eddie Jordan came down with flu-like symptoms and was forced to depart in the second quarter, leaving top assistant Mike O'Koren to sweat out a 102-99 win last night at MCI Center.

"And I put this nice suit on," O'Koren said, lifting his jacket from his soaked dress shirt. "It caught me off guard a little bit. I didn't know."

Larry Hughes, above, scores 26 points and Gilbert Arenas adds 36 to lead the Wizards past Atlanta, 102-99, Wednesday. (Joel Richardson - The Washington Post)

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_____Wizards (40-30) at Orlando Magic (34-37)_____

When: 7 p.m.

TV/Radio: Comcast Sports Net, WWRC-1260 and WNAV-1430.

Data: The Wizards, 10 games above .500 on April 1 for the first time since 1979, are on the road for one game before returning to MCI Center for games against Indiana and Boston. The Wizards should get a boost from the return of Coach Eddie Jordan, who left during the second quarter of Wednesday's victory over Atlanta with flu-like symptoms and did not return. The Wizards have battled a flurry of injuries and are clinging to the fourth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The surging Chicago Bulls, who played Cleveland last night, are just behind Washington with 11 games remaining. The Wizards and Bulls will meet at MCI Center April 13 in a game that could determine which team hosts a potential first-round playoff series. Orlando has won two straight and trails Philadelphia by one game (the 76ers hold a tie-breaker) for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Wizards beat Orlando, 106-96, at MCI Center in November but lost both ends of a home-and-home in late January despite a combined 67 points from Gilbert Arenas. In the last meeting, on Jan. 29 at MCI Center, former Maryland star Steve Francis scored 32 points and hit a crucial jump shot to snap a tie with 24 seconds remaining. Orlando is thin in the back court because Hedo Turkoglu is out for the season with a fractured left wrist while rookie Jameer Nelson is out after suffering a tear in his rib cage Monday night and could miss two weeks. The Wizards have overcome their own injury issues in part because players like Laron Profit have filled in. Profit has scored 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting in the last four games.

-- Ivan Carter

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O'Koren also didn't know that his team would have to hold on for dear life until Hawks point guard Tyronn Lue's desperation three-pointer banged hard off the backboard at the buzzer. With the victory, the Wizards (40-30) are 10 games above .500 on April 1 for the first time since 1979 -- no joke. They also matched their victory total from all of last season with 25 wins at home -- the most since MCI Center opened in 1997.

"Congratulations to us. This team has been setting the bar high all season," point guard Gilbert Arenas said after scoring a game-high 36 points. "I know we're all proud, but we've got to keep going. There are more things to accomplish out there than setting a home court record."

After returning home from a 3-2 Western Conference trip the day before, players confidently began talking of maintaining a hold on the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Chicago Bulls won their seventh in a row last night to stay within one game of the Wizards. Before the game, Jordan said that he can never get ahead of himself because "the season is a fragile thing. As a head coach you always feel like you're walking on the edge of disaster."

The Wizards were certainly headed in that direction as they trailed, 93-91, with 2 minutes 12 seconds left against the Hawks, owners of the league's worst record (11-60) and losers of 23 of their past 24 games, including 10 straight. Arenas scored four consecutive points to give the Wizards a two-point lead but Hawks forward Al Harrington (20 points) responded with a turnaround jumper over Kwame Brown to tie the game at 95 with 50 seconds left.

Arenas then drove inside to give the Wizards the lead for good 16 seconds later and drew a charge from Harrington on the other end. The Wizards hit 5 of 6 free throws down the stretch to finish off the Hawks, a team they beat by 29 points in their last meeting two weeks ago.

"It's always tough when you're coming home after being on the road for so long," said Arenas, who scored 12 points in the fourth quarter. "It's almost like another road game because it's another arena to get used to -- our sixth in the last six games. But we pulled it out."

Hughes had 26 points and four steals and Thomas, starting his third game for Brendan Haywood (injured thumb), scored 16 points with eight rebounds. Juan Dixon, playing his second game since returning from a sprained right ankle, had nine points and Brown and Profit, making his fourth start of the season, had seven points apiece.

"There are a lot of things that happen through the course of a season. Guys get sick, guys get injured and you have to be prepared for anything," Hughes said.

Even the coach getting ill. Jordan had to leave for the locker room twice in the second quarter, and he didn't return after the last trip. "He told us with about four or five minutes in the half that he didn't feel good. He just didn't feel strong enough to come out in the third or fourth quarter," O'Koren said about Jordan, who is expected to be back on the sideline when the Wizards face Orlando on Friday.

O'Koren led the Wizards to a 1-1 record when Jordan was hospitalized with a blood clot in his left leg last November. Both of those games against Toronto and Philadelphia were decided in overtime. Although ill, Jordan was able to make light of his night after watching the game from the locker room. "He told me he wanted this game to go into overtime" too, O'Koren said, shaking his head. "I'm just happy and fortunate that we won this game."


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