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Wizards Feeling The Late Crush

Fourth-Quarter Lapses Result in Five-Game Swoon

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 11, 2005; Page D01

A fourth-quarter free-for-all for the Washington Wizards' opponents has contributed to the Wizards' free fall in the month of April.

Instead of tightening up in the final period, the Wizards have consistently broken down. They have given opposing guards clear, layup-drill quality driving lanes. Their poor rotations and defensive lapses have left shooters open for uncontested three-pointers. And, opposing big men have been rolling right to the hoop for easy slam dunks.

Aaron McKie, right, and the 76ers made it tough for the Wizards and guard Larry Hughes, handing Washington its fifth straight defeat on Saturday. (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.

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The Philadelphia 76ers were just the latest team -- joining Orlando, Indiana (twice), Boston and Detroit -- to stage a crushing fourth-quarter run against the Wizards, who have let down their guard and lost five consecutive games for the first time this season. Although the Wizards were able to withstand a 23-4 fourth-quarter run in Orlando to start the month, they wilted under the Pacers' 18-9 game-ending run, the Celtics' 21-12 game-ending run, a game-breaking 15-5 run by the Pistons and a 15-6 run, again by the Pacers.

The Wizards held a 13-point fourth-quarter lead Saturday against the Allen Iverson-less 76ers before Marc Jackson and Samuel Dalembert found ample holes in the Wizards' defense and Philadelphia closed out the game on a 32-13 run. "Lately, we've made a few errors in key stretches. This time of year we have to execute," reserve forward Michael Ruffin said. "We have to at least make it difficult. If [our opponents] make a good shot or a good play, then okay. But don't give them anything easy."

The Wizards don't have to search for the reason they are 1-5 in April and sputtering toward the finish. "We're just not playing good defense," guard Larry Hughes said. "I'm not going to analyze it too much or make excuses. It's no excuse for us letting teams get easy buckets and penetrate our paint. We have not been a defensive stopper [all season] but we were always able to make a turnover or get a loose ball whenever we needed to. Right now, we're not getting those breaks."

Washington's opponents have shot a combined 50.3 percent and outscored the Wizards by a combined 40 points in the fourth quarter this month, but Coach Eddie Jordan said that hasn't been the only reason the team has struggled. "We emphasize the beginning of the game. We've had many great starts. We emphasize the whole 48 minutes," Jordan said. "You've got to concentrate the last six minutes, the last four minutes, last two minutes, but you can't put yourself in that position if you don't concentrate the first 38 minutes. We just want to be consistent."

Despite the untimely swoon, the Wizards (41-35) have the same record as fifth-place Indiana as they prepare to host the Milwaukee Bucks tonight at MCI Center. The Wizards' final six games are against three teams in playoff contention (Chicago, Cleveland and New Jersey) and three others preparing for the lottery (Milwaukee, Charlotte and New York), and Hughes said the team has to look ahead, not focus on the slump. "If we go on and win the [next four] home games and win our last two road games, or split them, then nobody will talk about these five games. We'll go into the postseason on a good note and that's really what we're focused on," Hughes said. "We've been on runs where we won five, lost four, won seven, lost five. So we've been doing this all year. It's not a good time to be on a losing streak, but it's been our makeup. It's not going to be a turnaround just because of the time of year it is."

Point guard Gilbert Arenas agreed that the Wizards have made it a habit of digging into a hole and climbing out all season, but he added, "We've got to get out of that now because we don't have the same team we had at the beginning."

The Wizards certainly miss the inside presence of 7-foot center Brendan Haywood (broken left thumb) and the perimeter shooting of forward Jarvis Hayes (fractured right patella) and guard Anthony Peeler (right knee tendinitis) but, with the exception of Ruffin, they have also failed to get consistent production from the bench. Forward Kwame Brown hasn't responded well to the poor reception at home, guard Juan Dixon hasn't been the same player since he sprained his ankle before the all-star break and Jordan hasn't played guard Steve Blake in two of the past four games. Injuries to Hughes (sprained left elbow) and forward Antawn Jamison (sore right knee) have also hampered the Wizards.

"We really haven't had the chemistry of having the team healthy. I hate using excuses because it's not an excuse, but other guys need to step it up. And we just haven't got it done," Jamison said. "We just have to find a way to get on one accord. You just can't turn a switch on, 'Here we go again,' like we were in January or December. We've just got to scrap. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. Nobody is going to give anything to us."

The Wizards haven't responded well during their push to make the postseason for the first time since 1997, but forward Jared Jeffries said the team won't succumb to the pressure. "Pressure is what you make of it," Jeffries said. "These games aren't any more important than they were a month ago. It's just the other teams are playing harder and now it's time for us to step up. I think guys are playing hard. I don't think we're playing smart all the time. If we can match the effort with the intelligence we have we'll be okay."

Arenas said the team has time to get it together on the defensive end. "I think we're going to have that when it counts," Arenas said. Then, Arenas paused, thought about what he said, and chuckled when he realized that this is the time when it counts. "It's easy to laugh about it now, but when we get in the playoffs, we're going to start playing defense we never played before and it's going to click all of a sudden. Maybe the next four, six games you'll be like, 'Where did this defense come from that hasn't been here the whole season?' "

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