CLEVELAND, Jan. 24 -- Anthony Peeler rebounded a miss by Cleveland Cavaliers forward Drew Gooden with three seconds left, then dribbled to half court, where he chuckled and slammed the ball at center court, gleefully watching it bounce high into the air. Before Peeler could leave the floor, Washington Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan slapped five with the reserve guard and hugged him after the 35-year-old Peeler came off the shelf to propel the Wizards to an improbable 106-97 win Monday night at Gund Arena.
Much to Jordan's chagrin, the Wizards seem to enjoy spotting their opponents big leads before rallying back. "I'd like to be ahead, instead of coming back," Jordan said, laughing. Jordan can't explain it but he won't even try, as long as it leads to results like Monday night, when Peeler scored 14 fourth-quarter points to help the Wizards come back from a 17-point first-half deficit to defeat the Cavaliers.
Gilbert Arenas, right, and the Wizards rally to score 76 points in the second half to overtake the Cavaliers, 106-97, Monday.
(Mark Duncan - AP)
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After shooting just 25.7 percent and scoring a season-low 30 points in the first half, the Wizards erupted for 76 in the next two quarters, leaving 17,002 in the building stunned. "You can't celebrate against us because we know how to play when we're down," said point guard Gilbert Arenas, who led six players in double figures with 30 points. "We're a team that fights from behind. When you're up 10, don't be sitting there bumping heads and shaking because we're coming. Teams get comfortable when they're up and we do too. But a team like us, a couple of shots and we're right back in it."
With the victory, the Wizards (25-15) avenged a 31-point defeat in Cleveland on Nov. 13 and won their third in a row. They also matched their win total from last season, when they needed 79 games to reach 25. "That's crazy," said reserve forward Etan Thomas.
Thomas hit two clutch buckets during a 20-7 run in the fourth quarter as the Wizards turned a five-point deficit at the start of the period into an 88-80 lead when Peeler sank three free throws with 5 minutes 35 seconds left in the game.
Peeler started the run when he sank a three-pointer from the top of the key to bring the Wizards to a 74-71 deficit. He added another from the top of the key to give the Wizards a 78-76 lead -- their first lead since 2-0. Then, after Thomas's two baskets gave the Wizards a four-point lead, Peeler made a three-pointer from the right corner to put the Wizards up 85-78.
"When I came in the first half, I wasn't being aggressive," said Peeler, who missed his first four shots from the field. "I said at halftime, 'I need to be more aggressive, and not be so passive. When I get an opportunity to shoot, just shoot it.' "
Peeler's performance followed up his fourth-quarter heroics two days before during a 95-93 win in Indiana, where he scored a season-high 16 points and hit four three-pointers in the final period. "He was big for us -- again," Jordan said.
So was Arenas, who has scored at least 30 points for the third time in the past four games in Larry Hughes's absence, with most of his production coming from the foul line. He made 13 of 16 free throws and has attempted 64 free throws in the past four games, making 51. The Wizards were 39 of 49 from the foul line, connecting on 28 in the second half.
Coming into the game, the Wizards had to think that they couldn't shoot much worse than they did in the first quarter the last time they were in Cleveland. On that afternoon, the Wizards shot 5 of 25 (20 percent). Monday night, the Wizards would have loved to shoot that well -- they missed 18 of 21 shots in the first period. The Wizards led 2-0 when Arenas knocked down an 18-foot jumper, but the Cavaliers scored the next eight points and led 26-13 after one quarter.
The Wizards trailed 38-21 when LeBron James (31 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists) coasted into the lane for an uncontested layup and the Wizards immediately began thinking about their last defeat in the building.
"It wasn't in the back of our minds, it was in the front of our minds," said forward Antawn Jamison, who shot 2 of 9 but finished with 16 points after going 12 of 17 from the foul line. "We didn't want that feeling again. I think that's why we were really motivated."