With 48 seconds left in the Washington Wizards' 112-106 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers last night, Gilbert Arenas picked up a technical foul, and when his screams at an official were ignored, he plopped into an empty seat in the front row of MCI Center. A woman seated next to Arenas patted him on the back, trying to soothe the frustrated point guard, but after scoring a career-high 44 points, Arenas kept shaking his head, unwilling to accept what was happening on the court.
The Wizards (41-35) were back home, in front of their 11th sellout crowd of the season, in a supposed "must-win" situation -- and they were handed a gift before the game with the news that the 76ers wouldn't have the league's leading scorer, Allen Iverson, in the lineup. But, given the circumstances, the Wizards didn't show any signs of urgency until they trailed by 21 in the first half.
Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas, right, scores a career-high 44 points but Washington still loses to an undermanned 76ers team without Allen Iverson and Chris Webber, 112-106.
(Evan Vucci - AP)
_____Eastern Conference_____ The Wizards and Bulls are vying for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, which carries home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Washington holds the tiebreaker over Chicago.
|Team ||W-L ||Pct. ||GB |
|4. Chicago ||46-34 ||.575 ||- |
|5. Wizards ||45-35 ||.563 ||1 |
• Bulls (2): Tonight, vs. Knicks; tomorrow, at Pacers.
• Wizards (2): Tonight, at Nets; tomorrow, at Knicks.
Then, after an incredible second-half turnaround, they took a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter before they were outworked, outhustled and outscored by the likes of backup center Marc Jackson, seldom-used Willie Green and rookie Andre Iguodala. "This is a hard one to swallow," Arenas said after the Wizards dropped their season-high fifth consecutive game and lost their third in a row at home for the first time this season.
Arenas's performance -- he topped 40 for the sixth time this season -- and the return of forward Antawn Jamison, who had missed the previous two games to rest his right knee, weren't enough to keep the Wizards from falling into sole possession of the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. Just a week ago, they were in fourth. "We got complacent a little bit," Jamison said after contributing 14 points and seven assists in 40 minutes. "Made it to the playoffs and everybody got happy. But we have to realize, the most important basketball is in the month of the April."
Jamison is half-right -- the Wizards aren't in the playoffs yet. The team began selling playoff tickets before the game, but the Wizards have just a two-game lead over Philadelphia and Cleveland, the teams tied for seventh. And, more troubling, the Wizards are 1-5 in April and have just a 3 1/2-game lead over ninth-place New Jersey with six games left. "We talk in terms of we're learning. We know what we are as a first-time contending team," Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said. "We see it, we feel it, we're going through it. It's good we built a healthy cushion. Is it decreasing? Yes. But I'm not going to sit here and say we're panicking. I'm not. We're not."
But they are crumbling at the wrong time. The Wizards' first-half performance against a 76ers team that was playing without Iverson, and Chris Webber (who was acquired near the trade deadline in February) was inexplicable. But they overcame that hole and led 93-80 when Arenas knocked down one of his six three-pointers with 10 minutes 33 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The lead wouldn't stand for long, as the Sixers scored the next 12 points to get within one point with a layup by center Samuel Dalembert (18 points).
The Wizards led 101-100 when Arenas hit two free throws with 3:09 left but Jackson hit a layup over center Etan Thomas and the Sixers never trailed again. With the Sixers up 106-101, Arenas tried to coerce Green into a foul from beyond the three-point line. Arenas lost the ball, which led to a breakaway dunk by Dalembert that secured the win.
Arenas then took his anger out on the officials. "It's frustrating because we worked extremely hard," forward Michael Ruffin said after scoring six points with nine rebounds. "We fought from 20-plus down to come up short. I think once we get a win, we'll be able to build on that. We just need to come away with one win. We're struggling a little bit. It's kind of tough."
Green, who started in place of Iverson, was benched in nine of the past 12 games but was among three 76ers players -- along with Jackson and Iguodala -- to score 20 points. The Sixers (39-37) had six players score in double figures and shot 67 percent in the fourth quarter, when they outscored the Wizards, 32-21. "Giving up this many points, to a team without their leading scorer, that's just something we cannot do," said Jared Jeffries, who scored 10 points with eight rebounds. "It was a matter of us not getting out, contesting shots. We let up a little bit."