The Washington Wizards won back-to-back games seven times last season, and every time Coach Eddie Jordan tried to motivate his team to get three -- either with a speech, a quote or a newspaper clipping -- it lost the next time out. Before the Wizards played the Toronto Raptors last night, Jordan tried a different approach to finally get his team over the hump: silence.
Jordan didn't mention it and the Wizards beat the Raptors, 102-86, in front of 14,541 at MCI Center to win three in a row for the first time since Michael Jordan's last season, 2002-03. However, the Wizards had a difficult time securing the win as Eddie Jordan painfully watched a 19-point third-quarter lead get chipped down to just six points with less than five minutes remaining when Raptors guard Vince Carter made an 18-foot jump shot.
Entering last night's game against the Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards shooting guard Larry Hughes had recorded 15 of his league-leading 29 steals in his previous three games, including a season-high six in a win over the Boston Celtics.
The increase in Hughes's thievery can be attributed to a shift in the Wizards' defense. In a home loss against Dallas, Hughes switched over to defend point guard Devin Harris, with Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas moving to shooting guard Josh Howard -- and they haven't looked back.
The reason for the change was simple: Although Arenas is two inches shorter, he weighs almost 10 pounds more than Hughes, giving Arenas the ability to defend shooting guards in the post.
"Gilbert always says he's bigger than Larry and stronger than Larry," Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said. "So we said, 'Okay, you're the two-guard on defense.' They made that switch on their own."
Hughes is averaging 3.63 steals per game -- almost a steal more than league runner-up Jamaal Tinsley of Indiana, who averages 2.67. Hughes said he is learning to be "aggressive, without being overly aggressive. I'm doing my homework, attacking."
"He has a knack for the ball and timing passing lanes," Jordan said. "He's not over-committing, he's not gambling. He's really under control defensively. He's a lot more intense and a lot more aggressive and yet more under control. So, you get a double-barrel shotgun right there." . . .
Reserve forward Samaki Walker missed his second consecutive game with a lower back strain. Walker said he expects to be back for the Wizards' game at Philadelphia on Friday. He injured the left side of his back when he turned to get a loose ball.
"It feels good doing normal functions but reaching back on my left side, it's kind of excruciating doing that," he said. "I've never had this before. The shocking thing was that it wasn't an overly aggressive play."
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After a timeout, Antawn Jamison (28 points, 13 rebounds) helped the Wizards avoid what could've been an embarrassing loss by scoring the next five points in a span of 43 seconds. Jamison made a layup, then got fouled while hitting a running jump shot and skipped down the court with glee.
"It's a good win, but I'm not going to think about three in a row," Jordan said. "I'm not happy with a lot of things tonight. I think we lost our composure a little bit. In order to be a good team and take that next step, we've got to stop the other team's runs."
The Wizards (6-4) led 83-64 at the end of the third quarter, which would've felt like a secure lead if the Raptors hadn't just overcome a 19-point third-quarter deficit to defeat the San Antonio Spurs, 96-91, in Toronto in their previous game.
The Raptors (5-7) scored the first 12 points of the fourth quarter -- with two field goals and eight free throws -- and trailed by seven after Carter hit a running left-handed layup over center Brendan Haywood. Then Jamison ended a string of seven straight missed shots for the Wizards when he hit a jumper.
"I think every time we play, we're really gaining confidence," Jamison said after recording his fourth double-double of the season. "I'm still not satisfied. It's still a lot of work ahead of us."
Gilbert Arenas had 26 points and four assists but he could be seen after the game walking gingerly in a pair of flip-flops and leaning forward to avoid walking upright. Arenas said he strained his lower back in the first quarter and "it's been tightening up ever since. I should be all right by Friday" to play the Philadelphia 76ers.
Arenas's pain didn't show during the game as he helped the Wizards outscore a team in the third quarter for the first time since the season opener. Arenas scored 12 points in the third period and made two three-pointers as the Wizards outscored the Raptors 34-18. In their past two games, the Wizards combined to score a total of 32 points in the third quarter.
The Wizards set an MCI Center record with 64 rebounds, outrebounding the Raptors by 17. They also improved to 3-0 since Jordan placed forward Jared Jeffries in the starting lineup. Jeffries had a season-high 12 rebounds and sank a three-pointer with 4.3 seconds left to give him 10 points and his first double-double of the season.
Guard Larry Hughes added 20 points and Haywood had a season-high 11 rebounds.
"It's definitely good to get three in a row," Haywood said. "I'm hoping we can get four, five, six in a row."
After the game, Jamison hugged his friend and former North Carolina teammate Carter, who matched his season high with 25 points. Carter, a four-time all-star, is having the worst season of his career, averaging career lows in points and minutes, and has been mentioned in numerous trade rumors. Jamison has given Carter advice through this trying season.
On Monday, Carter told reporters in Toronto that he was done dunking, but he admitted before the game that he was only kidding. Carter proved it in the third quarter, when he dunked an alley-oop pass with two hands and later added a running one-handed jam.
"I always enjoy playing Vince," Jamison said. "I know it's been difficult, I just wanted to go out and make it fun for him -- but not too fun."
Point guard Rafer Alston had 20 points and 13 assists for the Raptors, who had just 17 assists as a team.