The Washington Wizards couldn't relax after reserve guard Juan Dixon's stellar shooting display gave them a nine-point lead against the Atlanta Hawks with less than six minutes remaining. They couldn't even settle down after guard Larry Hughes hit two free throws to give them a six-point lead with 37 seconds left. And, when forward Antawn Jamison nearly lost the ball in the closing seconds, they could have lost the game.
But coming off two disappointing losses to end 2004 -- in which they failed to make plays down the stretch against Detroit and Boston -- it didn't matter to the Wizards how they prevailed yesterday afternoon. So, when Hawks guard Tyronn Lue's off-balance three-pointer pounded off the glass as time expired, the Wizards were just thankful that no time remained and that they started the new year with a 104-101 victory at MCI Center.
Washington's Jarvis Hayes, right, gets his jersey grabbed by a Hawks defender as he drives to the basket.
(Nick Wass - AP)
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"With the good basketball comes the ugly basketball sometimes. We were just doing what it takes to win," Hughes said after the Wizards (16-13) struggled against the team with the Eastern Conference's worst record, a team they beat by 24 points a month ago in Atlanta.
Hughes scored a game-high 26 points, including the game-clinching free throws with nine seconds left, but Dixon sparked the victory when he came off the bench and scored 15 points over a six-minute span in the second half to help the Wizards separate from the Hawks.
Dixon's performance was imperative on an afternoon when starting point guard Gilbert Arenas (17 points) was still battling the flu and had exerted most of his energy in the first half. "Juan was Superman for us today," Coach Eddie Jordan said about Dixon, who was inserted after Arenas picked up his fourth foul in the third quarter. "We really needed him on a night where, if it didn't turn out to be a 'W' for the Wizards, it could be very devastating for us."
The Hawks (5-24) scored 14 straight points in the third quarter and led by five when forward Jared Jeffries lost the ball, leading to a layup by Hawks forward Al Harrington (14 points, 11 rebounds). Hughes tied the game at 69 on a three-point play, then forward Jarvis Hayes found Dixon camped out in the right corner for a three-pointer with 21 seconds left in the period.
Dixon made 3 of 4 from beyond the three-point line and the Wizards led 90-81 when Dixon hit a driving layup with his left hand. "Coach called my number. That's what I want to do," said Dixon, who had played in just three of the past five games and scored a total of 14 points. "I know I can contribute and make plays like that. People know I can score."
Dixon left the court to a standing ovation with 1 minute 45 seconds left, but the game was far from finished. Hawks forward Antoine Walker (18 points, 13 rebounds) made a three-pointer to cut the lead to 99-96. Then, after Hughes missed 1 of 2 free throws, Lue, a former Wizard, penetrated into the lane to make a reverse layup and bring the Hawks within two points with 22 seconds left.
Hughes inbounded the ball to Jamison near half court, where Jamison dropped the ball, wrestled it free from Walker, then flipped it to Hughes as he fell to the ground. "Antawn had enough wherewithal to know where the next white jersey was," Jordan said.
Jamison, who said Walker hit his hand and then rolled on his ankle during the play, explained it another way. "Upon him rolling up on my body, I was able to see Larry," said Jamison, who had his 12th double-double of the season with 19 points and 12 rebounds. "It was a heads-up play. Luckily, we were able to control the ball and get it to the right person to hit the shots."
Hughes sank both free throws to give the Wizards a 102-98 lead, but Walker made a three-pointer six seconds later. Jamison hit two clutch free throws before Lue (16 points) missed.
After shooting 10 free throws the entire afternoon in Friday's 108-103 loss in Boston, the Wizards made 9 of 12 in the fourth quarter against the Hawks. "Those were big free throws, considering that Antoine Walker can hit daggers like that. That's something he's done his whole career," Jordan said. "Those are special situations where players have to step up and they did that."
Jordan saved his highest praise for Dixon. "Who's more powerful than Superman? Is Spider-Man better?" Jordan said. "But no. He's had some struggles in previous games, but he's always kept his head up. He is a professional. He stayed in it, and made some big plays and big shots for us."