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Wizards Fade in Regular Season Finale

Knicks 113, Wizards 105

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page D01

NEW YORK, April 20 -- For the first and only time this season, the Washington Wizards played a relatively meaningless game. Ever since that thrilling season-opening win in Memphis, when they had just eight players available -- excluding starters Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Brendan Haywood -- and came back from a 19-point first-half deficit to defeat the Grizzlies, the Wizards have set out to end an eight-year playoff drought for the franchise.

The Wizards came to Madison Square Garden with the knowledge that they had locked up the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. Their opponents in their regular season finale Wednesday night -- the New York Knicks -- have been planning their vacations for the past month. In the second quarter of the Wizards' 113-105 loss, Knicks forward Maurice Taylor was called for traveling and refused to give up the basketball in protest. "Hey, Mo, quit holding things up," Wizards reserve guard Anthony Peeler screamed. "You know you're about to go to Cancun."

Larry Hughes takes aim over the Knicks' Malik Rose, right, and Michael Sweetney as the Wizards ended the regular season with two straight losses heading into the playoffs at Chicago. (Ray Stubblebine -- Reuters)

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Game 1 at Chicago,

Sunday, 5:30 p.m.

TNT, Comcast SportsNet, WTEM-980

NEW YORK, April 20 -- Following Tuesday night's 109-101 loss at New Jersey, Washington Wizards forward Kwame Brown expressed frustration over the way he has been booed at several home games this season. Heading into Wednesday night's game, Brown was averaging 8.1 points and 5.5 rebounds on the road vs. 5.2 points and 3.0 rebounds at home, and appears to play with more confidence on the road.

Brown intimated that his treatment at MCI center led Coach Eddie Jordan to curb his minutes during the recent homestand. Brown made a case for more minutes with strong performances against the Nets and Knicks. After scoring a total of 20 points in home games against Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland and Charlotte, Brown scored 33 points against the Nets and Knicks, including a season-high 19 on 7-of-8 shooting Wednesday night.

After the game, Brown said he's entering the playoffs with a strong feeling of confidence. "I just want the fans to know that I have feelings too," Brown said. "I wasn't lashing out. I never want to battle with the fans. I need their support. I'm just saying, 'Support me.' I need it." . . .

Forward Jared Jeffries was back in the starting lineup one night after suffering a bruised knee. He played only seven minutes against the Nets, but bounced back to score 12 points in 27 minutes against the Knicks. . . .

Center Brendan Haywood was not in uniform (left knee contusion), but will be in the starting lineup when the playoffs open Sunday in Chicago. Haywood missed 10 games after fracturing his left thumb on March 27.

-- Ivan Carter

How about that? The Wizards talking smack to a lottery-bound team. Instead of making plans for some island resort, the Wizards are on their way to Chicago, where they will face the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. It's a rematch of the franchise's last playoff matchup in 1997, when the Michael Jordan-led Bulls swept the Chris Webber-led Bullets in three games.

So, it really didn't matter what happened in New York, except that Coach Eddie Jordan wanted his team -- which has just three players on the roster with playoff experience -- Peeler, Hughes and Antawn Jamison -- to enter the postseason with some momentum.

Arenas had a team-high 25 points and forward Kwame Brown had a season-high 19 for the Wizards, who wore headbands as a sign of unity last night. But the Wizards' reserves couldn't hold on to a 10-point second-half lead against the Knicks' starters, who played until the end. Guard Jamal Crawford hit a career-high seven three-pointers and scored a game-high 36 points for the Knicks (33-49). The Knicks shot 26 of 26 from the foul line, while the Wizards missed 15 free throws.

"We have not proven to anybody, even to ourselves, that we can be competitive at a high level in a playoff atmosphere," Jordan said. "We're happy where we are but we don't have that playoff tenacity and that playoff personality yet. It's a challenge. It's the first time for us, first time for me as a head coach. We've got to work our butts off to find a way to get it. We'll get it straight the next couple of days."

The loss, however, meant that the Wizards (45-37) won 20 more games than last season and collected the most victories since the Bullets won 54 games in 1979. But, despite the surprising success, they remain somewhat unsatisfied.

"We want to play even better. Maybe to the fans in D.C., maybe to the media, maybe to our front office, maybe to our owner, we've surpassed expectations," Jordan said. "But frankly, I think we should've played better and we should have more wins."

Along the way, Jamison emerged as an all-star for the first time in seven seasons and provided the leadership and a level of professionalism the Wizards have lacked for some time. Arenas has blossomed into arguably one of the top 20 players in the league and made his first all-star appearance. And, Hughes perhaps should've been an all-star and became one of the better all-around players, leading the league in steals. The Wizards had to overcome more than 300 games lost to injuries, illnesses and suspensions -- Jordan even missed two games because of a blood clot in his left leg.

Arenas, the only starter to play at least 80 games this season, said Jordan has earned consideration for coach of the year. "Yeah, why not? What hasn't he done that the other candidates haven't done. They all clinched playoffs. They all turned their teams around. That's coach of the year to me," Arenas said.

Several times this season, they had built-in excuses to fold. But they held on without Brown, guard Steve Blake and forward Etan Thomas in the first half of the season; without Hughes for 20 games; and they also stayed the course through late-season losses of Jamison and Haywood. "We've had injuries but we had so many talented players we were able to overcome those injuries," said Haywood, who didn't want to think about how many games they could have won with their full team. "You can't say what if because we played against a lot of teams that had injuries. We beat the Spurs without Tim Duncan. We beat Phoenix without Steve Nash. So we can't say that if we had all of our guys we would've won 60 games. I don't think about what if, I'm just happy about the season we had."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company