By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 6, 2008
The Wizards had what they wanted when it counted: the ball in the hands of all-star forward Caron Butler with the clock winding down and a chance to knock off the Los Angeles Lakers.
As a sellout crowd at Verizon Center rose to its feet last night, Butler dribbled back and forth in front of Trevor Ariza, froze Ariza with a series of pump fakes and released a three-point shot that appeared to be on the mark.
Instead, the basketball caught the front of the rim and time expired before Wizards forward Andray Blatche could gather the rebound and lay it back in.
Lakers 106, Wizards 104.
The final play capped a wild night that featured a huge third-quarter run by the Lakers that threatened to turn a competitive game into a blowout, a gritty comeback by the Wizards that was sparked in part by Butler (26 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals) and Blatche (18 points, 12 rebounds) and ultimately, another loss for the Wizards, who dropped to 3-14.
Butler had an opportunity to make his first game-winner of the season because of another oddity: Kobe Bryant missed a free throw that would have given the Lakers a three-point lead with 14.3 seconds to play.
"I was messing with him," Butler said of Bryant. "I walked up to him and said: 'Give me one.' His shot bounced off, and I knew we didn't have any timeouts. It was a situation where I had a good look and left it a little short."
Butler could have driven to the basket for an attempt at a game-tying score but said he never considered that an option.
He wanted to end the game right then, and he didn't want to leave the Lakers enough time to call a timeout, advance the ball to half court and run a play for the notoriously dangerous Bryant, who gave the Lakers a three-point lead with 24.3 seconds remaining by banking in a tough fadeaway jumper over Antonio Daniels.
"I thought I took it just in time because it was a clean look and if it went in, the game is over," said Butler, who scored 12 fourth-quarter points. "You didn't want it to be one of those situations where the shot goes in, there's a second or two left and the best closer in basketball is at the other end asking for the basketball. You just want to come down, hit the shot and run off the court with your hands up, but it just didn't go in for me."
The Wizards, who wore throwback uniforms commemorating the 1962-63 Chicago Zephyrs, were in position to win the game only because they erased a 20-point, third-quarter deficit with a 32-point fourth quarter.
The Lakers led 58-53 at halftime and used a 27-12 run to open up an 85-65 lead on a three-pointer by Vladimir Radmanovic. Washington was outscored 29-19 during the disastrous third quarter, shot 31.8 percent and couldn't run the Lakers off of the three-point line, where they connected on 4 of 6 attempts in the period.
Similar lulls have haunted the Wizards all season.
"They are always going to have some runs, and I told the team that they have to withstand their runs," Wizards Coach Ed Tapscott said. "They are a pretty good team. They would not have made it to the NBA Finals last year if they weren't. We have to learn from these experiences."
The same can be said of a player like Butler. The two-time all-star has been trying to carry the Wizards, along with fellow two-time all-star forward Antawn Jamison, who posted his 11th double-double of the season with 15 points and 12 rebounds.
Bryant and Butler became close during Butler's one season with the Lakers in 2004-05, and the two talk regularly.
"I'm proud of him, and it's always fun to match up against him," said Bryant, who was one of six Lakers to score in double figures. "I think it's a good learning experience for him. To figure out how to keep your team together in these tough times, that's when you really improve as a leader. It's easy to lead a group of guys when it's going well, but when you struggle to make the playoffs, that's when you really learn a lot about yourself."
Wizards Notes: Owner Abe Pollin, who turned 85 on Wednesday, celebrated the occasion last night at Verizon Center. . . . The 3-14 start is the worst since the 1966-67 Baltimore Bullets opened 3-16. . . . The two-point margin of victory was the smallest of the season for the Lakers.
Box score, E6