This is beginning to become the routine: The Washington Wizards toy with an offensively inferior opponent for about three quarters, then point guard Gilbert Arenas and his teammates tighten up on defense, get a couple of steals and light up the scoreboard. By the end of the night, MCI Center has become the Wizards' playground, with the fans rising to their feet after some highlight-worthy jam and the players on the bench giggling, slapping hands and waving towels as the horn sounds.
It happened again last night, as the Wizards found themselves trailing the Allen Iverson-less Philadelphia 76ers in the fourth quarter but closed out the game on a 20-9 run to prevail, 117-107, before 17,050. The Wizards (26-15) won their eighth consecutive home game -- the team's longest home winning streak since December 1997 (the year MCI Center opened) -- and they are 16-5 at home. They have won 11 of their past 13 games, already surpassing their win total from last season in half the games.
Reserve guard Juan Dixon fills in admirably with 22 points in 30 minutes against the 76ers. The Wizards (26-15) have passed last season's win total.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
The Wizards placed guard Larry Hughes (fractured right thumb) on the injured list and activated reserve point guard Steve Blake for the third time this season. Blake is hoping that his latest comeback attempt will be his last.
"I don't want to get hurt any more," said Blake, who had played in eight of the first 40 games because of lingering problems with his left ankle and foot. Blake had surgery to remove a chipped bone in his left ankle in September and hasn't had much luck since he joined the team on Nov. 20. He suffered an arch strain in his left foot and later sprained his left ankle in a collision with New Jersey's Vince Carter, earning two more trips to the injured list.
"This season has been tough for me personally, as far as injuries and stuff like that," Blake said. "It's still nice to see the team be successful. And if you're going to be hurt, it's nice to have a winning team. You're still feeling good, because when you come back, you have something to play for."
Blake, a former Maryland standout, has a lot to play for, since he will be a restricted free agent this summer. "You can't help but think about it, but when you go out there playing, you block all that stuff out. It's about now. It's about the season. All that stuff will come," said Blake, who added that he wants to stay in Washington. "I love D.C. I've been in this area for 5 1/2 years, to stick around here and be a part of something that's building and getting better every year would be really nice." . . .
Allen Iverson didn't play last night because of a strained left rotator cuff. In the teams' first meeting, Nov. 26 in Philadelphia, Iverson stole Jarvis Hayes's inbounds pass with 3.3 seconds remaining and hit the game-winning layup in overtime. "A.I. made a great play. It didn't take long" to get over it, Hayes said.
Coach Eddie Jordan said he wasn't concerned about Hayes being in that situation again. "We made that change a long time ago," Jordan said. "I know he won't take it out."
-- Michael Lee
_____ Wizards in '05 _____
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"Our milestone is a lot bigger than this -- a lot higher," Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said. "We set the bar high. We don't talk about it much, but we have some plans in that locker room."
Had it not been for four losses to the Miami Heat -- the team the Wizards trail by just 3 1/2 games for the best record in the Eastern Conference and the Southeast Division lead -- they could have an even better record.
"We can't be happy about where we are," Arenas said after he led five players in double figures with 33 points and tied his season high with nine assists. "Everything that we've done to this point is nice, but there is no glory in half-season standings. We need to show a lot of people exactly what kind of team we are."
The Wizards have proven to be resilient, as they won their fourth game without Larry Hughes (fractured right thumb), with contributions from almost everywhere. Forward Antawn Jamison had 23 points. Juan Dixon returned after missing two games with the flu to score in double figures for the sixth consecutive game with 22 points. Dixon added five assists (with no turnovers) and three steals. "I can provide anything," said Dixon, who scored 14 points in the fourth quarter. "That's what I did at Maryland; I got steals and I played the passing lanes. I played smart."
Jarvis Hayes had 12 points in his fourth start at shooting guard and Jared Jeffries added 11 points as the Wizards improved to 11-0 when Jeffries scores in double figures. Reserve forward Michael Ruffin, known for his defense and rebounding, provided a seldom-seen offensive spark, scoring a season-high seven points, including a two-handed dunk to end the game.
"Once again, everybody stepped up," said Arenas, who scored or assisted on 25 consecutive points for the Wizards during a 10-minute stretch in the second half. "We're confident. We've been saying all along, if we play our game, and play the right way, we think we're unbeatable. We do it in stretches. If we do it for a whole game, nobody will beat us."
For the fourth time this season, the Wizards defeated an opponent that beat them in the first meeting. They got some payback for a 116-114 overtime loss in Philadelphia, when Iverson intercepted a pass with 3.3 seconds left and sank the game-winning basket. Iverson was in street clothes for the rematch as the NBA's leading scorer was forced to sit because of a strained left rotator cuff.
Two days before, Iverson scored 45 points with 11 assists and four steals in a win against the Heat, and Arenas was anticipating a duel. With Iverson out, that didn't mean that Arenas wasn't in for a test. Iverson's replacement for the night, Willie Green, scored a career-high 32 points. "He had 19 in the first half," Arenas said. "You're thinking. Oh, A.I. is out there, with the 33 [uniform] instead of 3."
Green scored nine more points in the third quarter as the 76ers connected on 12 of 17 shots (70.6 percent) and took an 87-82 lead in the final period.
Dixon helped hold Green to four points on 1-of-6 shooting in the fourth quarter, when the Wizards outscored the Sixers 35-20. The Wizards trailed 98-97 when Andre Iguodala made a monster jam with 6 minutes 34 seconds left. But the Wizards scored the next 11 points to put the game away.