It was one of those shots that coaches and players call "back-breakers" -- those crushing blows that knock teams out and encourage fans to hit the exits. When Toronto Raptors guard Jalen Rose buried a three-pointer against the Washington Wizards with 2 minutes 55 seconds left on Nov. 28, giving his team a 97-88 lead, Rose began chest-bumping his teammates and high-fiving his coaches as the decibel level in Air Canada Center reached new heights.
"It was one of those games where it looked like it was basically over," Wizards center Brendan Haywood said. Rose said, "A nine-point lead with three minutes left should be enough."
Jared Jeffries and Gilbert Arenas celebrate a victory over the Timberwolves last week. Last year, the Wizards were 3-47 when they trailed at the start of the fourth quarter. This season, they're 7-10.
(Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)
Against most teams, it is. But the Wizards (19-13) have made it a habit this season to overcome seemingly insurmountable deficits and come away victorious. They have displayed comeback wizardry against the Minnesota Timberwolves (when they trailed by six with 1:49 left), the Boston Celtics (down 12 to start the fourth quarter) and the New York Knicks (eight points behind with 6:51 left). Off to their best start in 20 seasons, the Wizards have found few holes too deep from which to climb out.
"Anywhere from 12 to 18" points, guard Larry Hughes said with a smile. "If it's over 18, it's a burden on us. But anything in that range, we figure four or five possessions, we can get right back."
The Wizards staged a 12-3 run against the Raptors at the end of regulation before winning 114-109 in overtime. Think they were worried? After hitting a left-handed driving layup to cut the Raptors' lead to four, point guard Gilbert Arenas looked toward the bench for Wizards director of player development Mitchell Butler and began pointing at his left hand as he ran down the floor. "He told me I didn't have a left hand," Arenas said explaining his priorities at the time.
The Wizards don't want to play uphill against the Portland Trail Blazers tonight at MCI Center -- "We've got to get to a point, where we're not coming from behind," Coach Eddie Jordan said -- but they are confident that they can; a confidence that is born out of being the only team in the league with three players averaging at least 20 points per game in Hughes, Arenas and Antawn Jamison. The trio combines to average 64.8 points.
"We have so many weapons, that at any given time, one player can score six points in 20 seconds," Arenas said. "If it's not me, it's 'Tawn. If it's not 'Tawn, it's Larry. We score in spurts. If we're down five, we're not even thinking about it -- get a three, one stop, get a layup. Tie game."
After trailing the Timberwolves 114-108 on Saturday, the Wizards took a one-point lead when Arenas hit two free throws 88 seconds later. The Boston Celtics led 84-72 at the start of the fourth quarter on Nov. 17, but the game was tied in just 4:08 as Arenas, Jamison and Hughes outscored them 15-3. When the Knicks went up 97-89 in the fourth quarter on Dec. 10, the Wizards scored 10 straight points and took a two-point lead when Jamison drained a three-pointer three minutes later.
"Anytime you can score, you're not out of the game because you're realistically within distance," Jordan said. "Our guards really lead that. Larry is a leader on the floor. Gilbert has a killer instinct. That means a lot. They want to win and they'll do anything. They'll dive on the floor for loose balls, they give extra effort on the glass. We are a very good offensive rebounding team, we create turnovers and we can score -- those are all the ingredients of a comeback team."
The Wizards rank fifth in the league in scoring average (101.7 points), first in steals (9.2) and field goal attempts (86.1) and second in offensive rebounds (14.3).
Arenas said that before a run begins, he and Hughes will often share a look, "like, 'All right. Time to go.' We're just trying to make plays, then recognizing when it gets late, to make a big play or get a couple of stops. We don't worry about the time," Hughes said.
The Wizards weren't known for making comebacks last season; they were 3-47 when they trailed at the start of the fourth quarter. This season, the Wizards are already 7-10.
"We have a lot of resilience. We have supreme confidence in ourselves," Haywood said. "You can see it -- especially on film. Last year, a team would get a big run and you'll see everybody's body language as they walk to the bench. That has changed. I think everybody believes we're not out of it until the final horn sounds. I think it comes with us getting wins early on. Success breeds confidence. That's made us a more confident team."
A team that used to point fingers when times got rough has found a way to rally around each other. A team that used to sulk when its opponents went on a big run now decides to strike back with a more impressive run of its own.
"It goes with our demeanor. When we're down, we don't put our heads down. We don't feel like it's over with. Guys are still upbeat. They're really positive," Jamison said. "That says a lot because we've got a lot of young guys on the team. It's a good sign of our character. I really like the character of our team. Any situation that comes up, we feel like we can find a way to get it done."
Hughes said it was difficult to stage comebacks last season when Hughes, Arenas and forward Jerry Stackhouse -- who was dealt to Dallas in exchange for Jamison last summer -- were hurt for significant stretches. "We didn't have scoring threats," Hughes said. "Gilbert was out. I was out. Stack was out. We didn't have the threats that we have now."
"We'll ride Larry's back and go. We'll ride Antawn's back and go. We'll ride my back and go from there," Arenas said. "We're not worrying about the offense. We're not worrying about that nine-point deficit."
But Hughes said the Wizards shouldn't make it a habit to fall behind. "We definitely don't want to put ourselves in a hole," he said. "We want to jump on teams and be on top. We know that any run a team makes we can counter that, but we want to start out on top and not work so hard to come back."