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Wizards Are Left Winded In Denver Air

Nuggets 127, Wizards 98

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page D01

DENVER, March 22 -- The Washington Wizards began their five-game West Coast trip with a humiliating, 127-98 loss to the Denver Nuggets, but it may have been the beginning of much more as dissension and disharmony appear to have crept in for the first time this season. Several issues that have been troubling the team of late began bubbling toward the surface.

Guard Larry Hughes complained that the team is moving away from what made it successful in the first half of the season. "We're running a set every time and that's not good for us," Hughes said. Several players expressed the need for the ball to move around more. Point guard Gilbert Arenas said efforts like this are not acceptable for a team that has aspirations of making its first postseason appearance in eight years.

Denver's Kenyon Martin, left, challenges Larry Hughes early in Washington's 127-98 loss to the Nuggets on Tuesday. (David Zalubowski - AP)

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DENVER, March 22 -- The Washington Wizards' jockeying for Eastern Conference playoff position greatly impacts the Denver Nuggets, who will receive Washington's first-round draft pick should the team end the franchise's eight-year postseason drought. Losing the pick also would free up money this summer so the Wizards can sign free agents, particularly guard Larry Hughes and forward Kwame Brown.

The Wizards dealt the draft pick (and Laron Profit) to Orlando in 2001 for center Brendan Haywood, and the Magic traded the pick to Denver last summer in a deal for Jameer Nelson. When the Nuggets acquired forward Kenyon Martin in a sign-and-trade deal with the New Jersey Nets last summer, Nuggets General Manager Kiki Vandeweghe gave up three future draft picks that belonged to Denver, Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Clippers appear headed for another lottery trip, while the 76ers are in a battle for the eighth spot in the East. . . .

The Nuggets started the season 17-25 and their star, Carmelo Anthony, had a few noted off-court incidents, including an appearance in a DVD that glorified the drug trade in his home town of Baltimore. But Anthony said that a playoff berth would make up for all of those early season struggles. The Nuggets entered their game Tuesday night with a 2 1/2-game lead over Minnesota for the final spot.

"Aw, that's a great story. Despite what the team went through, what I went through and here at the end of the season and we're still here playing, that's amazing," Anthony said. "It's a great feeling. Everything happens for a reason and only the strong can survive. So, that's what we've been doing. We had a tough start for a minute, a couple of months, now we picked it back up. We're in good position to secure the eight spot. We control everything right now." . . .

Wizards director of player development Mitchell Butler took his position with the team only a few weeks after the Nuggets made him one of the final cuts in training camp.

"When I walk into this place, I sort of feel like I should be putting on a uniform and playing. It conjured up some feelings, some emotions," Butler said. "It's a double-edged sword. Would I love to be out on this floor? Absolutely. Do I love what I'm doing for the Wizards right now? I love it even more."

After they cut him, the Nuggets offered Butler, 34, a position on their coaching staff, but the eight-year NBA veteran elected to join the franchise where he began his career in 1993.

-- Michael Lee

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"We're in the playoff hunt and we're getting beat by 30, [darn] near?" Arenas said after scoring a game-high 25 points. "We keep playing like this, we'll [mess] around and won't make the playoffs. We are five games away from being in ninth place. Orlando was right behind us and look where they are now because they didn't have their heads on right. It can happen to us. We've still got 17 games left. That's 17 games and we can still be in 10th and 11th place. If we don't realize that, we're going to keep getting our [butt] whipped like this."

The Wizards won't have to search long to discover their problems from this game. They allowed the Nuggets to shoot 56 percent, giving them several open looks and uncontested layups and dunks. They committed 20 turnovers, which led to 30 points for the Nuggets, who scored the most points since they scored 133 against Milwaukee on Feb. 2, 2000. And, they had just 15 assists compared with the Nuggets' 37. It was the 19th consecutive game a Wizards opponent has had more assists. Reserve forward Damone Brown, who is with the Wizards on a 10-day contract, was the only player who appeared willing to share the ball, getting a team-high six assists.

"It was a total breakdown on our part. Everything that could go wrong for us went wrong," Coach Eddie Jordan said. "I'm glad this counted for just one loss and not five."

The Wizards (36-29) have the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference but they hold just a one-game lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers, who defeated the Detroit Pistons Tuesday night. Washington has lost 10 of its past 12 games on the road and will head to Utah on Thursday to face a Jazz team that pushed it to the wire five days ago at MCI Center. "Whatever happened, happened," forward Kwame Brown said after scoring seven points with eight rebounds. "The worst thing you can do is be negative. Just be mad about it and use it as fire against Utah."

There certainly was nothing positive the Wizards could take from this loss. Not with Kenyon Martin (14 points) viciously dunking the ball with two hands, kicking his feet in the air and lifting his jersey to the crowd in the third quarter, when the Nuggets shot 68percent. Not with reserve forward Eduardo Najera -- not exactly a noted shooter -- getting the friendly roll on his jump shot in the fourth quarter, when the Nuggets outscored the Wizards, 35-22. And especially not with DerMarr Johnson hitting a shot from beyond half court at the buzzer, sending his teammates into uncontrollable laughter.

"This is a game you have to quickly forget and realize this is not who you are," center Brendan Haywood said. "We had poor defensive rotations. Our fast-break defense was horrible. They had 37 assists. They played some fun basketball."

Johnson led six players in double figures with 20 points for the Nuggets (36-30), who improved to 19-5 under Coach George Karl.

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