Wizards' Fortunes Reach .500

Antonio Daniels
Antonio Daniels and the Wizards rise to the .500 mark for the first time since early November when the team dropped to 8-9 after a loss to Indiana. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)
By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 7, 2006

With the Orlando Magic scrapping its way back into the game, slowly chipping away at a Washington lead that once seemed comfortable, Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan dipped his head into his team's huddle and reminded them of what was at stake.

"We said, 'We've been waiting for two months for this quarter,' " Jordan said. " 'This could be the closing quarter for us to close it out and reach a mark that you guys have been talking about. We've been waiting for a long time for this to happen. Let's close it out.' "

The mark in question was the elusive .500 mark, a standard of NBA competitiveness that has evaded the Wizards since early December when the team dropped to 8-9 after a humiliating road loss to the Indiana Pacers.

Jordan's words during last night's key third-quarter huddle appeared to have the intended effect as the Wizards turned a tenuous six-point advantage into a smooth 94-82 win in front of 14,251 at MCI Center. The win improved the Wizards to 23-23, and 15-9 at home.

The Wizards have beaten seven consecutive Eastern Conference opponents at MCI Center, have won 10 of their last 14 games overall and are starting to put distance between themselves and teams such as Orlando, Chicago and Boston, which trail them in the conference standings.

The season's longest homestand will continue tomorrow night against the Golden State Warriors.

"Five-hundred!" said Gilbert Arenas, who was 6 of 24 from the field but still finished with 23 points, 8 assists and 4 steals. "We finally got there."

Antawn Jamison finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds and pulled down the 4,000th rebound of his career with 5 minutes 31 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Jamison is one of 17 active players with more than 10,000 career points and 4,000 career rebounds.

The Wizards jumped out to a 27-15 lead at the end of the first quarter after receiving a jolt of energy from Awvee Storey, who started in place of the injured Jared Jeffries and finished the quarter with four points and four rebounds. Storey, who had not played in the previous nine games, was active defensively, pressuring Orlando's DeShawn Stevenson and helping set the tone for the Wizards by attacking the glass on both ends.

One of Storey's best plays came with 3:12 remaining in the quarter when he swiped the ball from Orlando's Dwight Howard underneath the Magic basket. The ball wound up in the hands of Arenas, who drove and made a layup to put Washington ahead 22-14.

Orlando played without several key players, including forward Grant Hill and guard Jameer Nelson. Nelson caused the Wizards all kinds of problems in a pair of Magic wins over the Wizards in Orlando this season. He made 9 of 15 shots, including 3 of 5 three-pointers, with 22 points and five assists in a 106-98 Magic win on Jan. 18 and made 6 of 12 shots with 15 points and five assists in a 91-83 Magic win on Nov. 23.

Steve Francis scored a season-low five points for Orlando.

Still, the Magic began to work its way back into the game at the start of the second half. Stevenson made four consecutive jump shots over Storey, cutting Washington's lead to 54-47.

Jordan signaled for a timeout and passionately called for more energy and poise. A similar third-quarter rut allowed Atlanta to get back into the game Saturday night, and even though the Wizards righted themselves en route to a 98-85 victory, Jordan wasn't happy with his team's lack of killer instinct.

The Wizards showed some last night. After Stevenson's mini-run, the Wizards went on a 12-2 run that included three-pointers by Jamison and Arenas and one textbook fast break during which the ball went from Antonio Daniels to Caron Butler to Jamison for a layup without touching the floor. That play gave Washington a 66-51 lead and led Orlando Coach Brian Hill to call timeout.

The Magic came back again and drew within four points on a Keyon Dooling layup with 34 seconds remaining in the third. The Wizards reestablished control at the start of the fourth. Arenas made a three-pointer, Daniels converted a tough runner and Butler posted up Stevenson, wheeled and dropped in a short jump hook to put the Wizards ahead 77-64. The Wizards outscored the Magic 28-20 over the game's final 12:30.

"This just shows that after all the turmoil we've been through, we're starting to pick it up and get back to where we were at last year," Jamison said. "It took us longer than we expected but it was just a matter of time before we came together and started playing like we are capable of playing."

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