Wizards Back Into Postseason

deshawn stevenson - washington wizards
DeShawn Stevenson (3-of-13, 7 points) and the Wizards fail to close Tuesday at Verizon Center but clinch a playoff spot nevertheless thanks to a Pacers' loss. (Jonathan Newton - The Post)
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 11, 2007

For better or worse, the Washington Wizards are in the postseason. As much as they had hoped to punch their own ticket with a win over the New Jersey Nets last night at Verizon Center, the Wizards clinched a third consecutive trip to the playoffs for the first time since 1988 because of Indiana's loss at Philadelphia.

With an opportunity to handle their own business, the Wizards defeated themselves against New Jersey, finding yet another way to lose without all-stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, this time 96-92. Despite holding a five-point lead with 1 minute 41 seconds left, the Wizards lost their season-high fifth game in a row after allowing the Nets to score eight consecutive points and coming up empty on two ugly drives by guard DeShawn Stevenson -- one ended with a shot that barely grazed the rim; another that was a wild air ball that went about five feet to the left of the basket.

As the dejected players walked off the court, and the disappointed crowd of 16,224 left the building, the public address announcer informed those remaining of the 76ers' 90-86 victory over Indiana. The result -- and its ramifications -- barely went acknowledged.

Instead of the pomp and circumstance that greeted their playoff appearance two years ago, the Wizards entered the postseason this time wheeled in on a gurney. "It's a different way to make it into the playoffs," Coach Eddie Jordan said afterward, "but we're here."

Antawn Jamison led the Wizards (39-38) with 26 points and 11 rebounds, Darius Songaila had a season-high 19 points, but the Nets got standout performances from their Big Three of Vince Carter, Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson. Before the game, Jordan said he didn't want a repeat of the Wizards' overtime loss in New Jersey on Saturday as Kidd and Carter became the first teammates to record triple-doubles in the same game since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in 1989.

There were no triple-doubles, but Carter and Jefferson finished with 31 and 35 points, respectively. Kidd added 14 rebounds, 11 assists and 4 points as the Nets (37-40) swept the season series against Washington and moved within two games of the Wizards for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference.

Songaila hit two free throws to give the Wizards an 89-84 lead, but the Nets responded with a driving runner in the lane by Carter and a fast-break layup by Jefferson. "Vince Carter makes a heck of a shot in the lane. He had three guys on him. Just pure talent," Jordan said. "We don't have that playmaker right now."

With the Wizards up by one, Stevenson had the ball at the top of the key. He started swerving and shaking in hopes of getting separation from Kidd. Stevenson dipped inside and missed. Jefferson was again off to the races but he missed the layup. Kidd, who was trailing, tipped the ball in with his left hand to give the Nets a 90-89 lead.

Jordan called timeout, but drew up another isolation play for Stevenson, who again had no success against Kidd, one of the league's best defenders. Stevenson finished with seven points on 3-of-13 shooting.

Jamison, the only one of the Wizards' Big Three not injured, did not have the ball in his hands when it mattered most.

"I'm always looking to get a touch. Sometimes the ball comes your way and it doesn't," said Jamison, who scored 23 points in the second half. "I still have a lot of faith in my teammates to get it done. As a competitor you want to the ball in your hands, but I trust Darius, DeShawn and Antonio to take those shots."

The thought of the Wizards backing into the postseason was inconceivable when the team had the best record in the conference after a victory over the Detroit Pistons in late January. "I also wouldn't think we'd be discussing playing at this time without Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler," said Daniels, who finished with 16 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists.

Now that the Wizards are in, the more pressing concern is where they will finish. With five games remaining, they have just a three-game lead over the Orlando Magic for the eighth seed in the conference. They remain 2 1/2 games behind the Miami Heat in the Southeast Division. The Wizards and Heat, which lost to Charlotte last night, will meet for the final time of the regular season tonight; the Heat leads the season series 2-1. "That which doesn't kill you only makes you stronger," Daniels said. "And we're getting stronger."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company