By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Hard to say what was more unlikely when this season began for the Washington Wizards -- that with a team boasting three former all-stars, Coach Flip Saunders would draw up a deciding play for 5-foot-5 point guard Earl Boykins; or that Boykins would step to the foul line in the closing seconds, with fans at Verizon Center chanting, "MVP! MVP!"
But Boykins has been the difference for the Wizards during their recent run of success the past two weeks, and he came up with another huge fourth-quarter performance on Tuesday as the Wizards defeated the Milwaukee Bucks, 104-102. Boykins scored 11 of his 13 points in the final period, including the decisive free throws with one second remaining, as the Wizards won their second game in a row and fourth in five games overall.
Bucks rookie sensation Brandon Jennings tied the game at 102 with a three-pointer with 10.5 seconds remaining, but during the timeout, Saunders decided to put the ball in Boykins's hands, as he had the entire quarter, and let him finish. Boykins milked the clock, drove right, then coerced Jennings into committing a foul. He calmly drained both free throws.
"And the fans are chanting MVP for Earl," Saunders said with a chuckle. "He's been like that. If you look at the games we've won, he's finished games for us. He's just a unique player with the things he has the ability to do."
Gilbert Arenas led the Wizards with 22 points, Nick Young had 21 and Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler both had 15, but with the game on the line, Boykins was the one making the plays. He brought the Wizards within 99-98 with a 14-foot floater over Jennings with 1:39 remaining. Forty seconds later, Boykins dribbled around in a circle, backed up, drove back in, and the moment he spotted Bucks center Andrew Bogut swarming in, he zipped a pass to Brendan Haywood, who cut to the basket for a dunk to give the Wizards the lead. The Wizards had waited for Bogut to bite, with Boykins earlier telling Haywood, "Keep rolling, keeping rolling. No matter what I do, just roll to the rim."
Boykins spent last season in Italy -- where his performance in a matchup with Jennings left an indelible mark on President Ernie Grunfeld -- and the Wizards signed him on Nov. 11 only after Javaris Crittenton, Mike James and Randy Foye came down with injuries, leaving the team with one point guard in Arenas. But Boykins has quickly provided some fourth quarter stability for the Wizards, leading the team to victories against Cleveland, Miami, Toronto and now Milwaukee, one of his eight former teams.
He was especially clutch on the foul line, where he made his final four shots after missing three of his first six. "I was awful from the foul line, but it's different when the game is on the line. It's actually easier to play when the game is on the line," Boykins said. "Tonight, I was able to get it done for us."
The Wizards (7-10) returned home feeling confident after defeating the Toronto Raptors, 106-102, the night before but they had struggled on the second end of back-to-back games this season. They entered the game just 1-3 in those situations, with their lone victory coming Oct. 31 against the winless New Jersey Nets.
"This is the type of feeling we've been wanting for awhile. We're happy that we're getting it, but we're not satisfied at all. We got a lot of making up to do," Jamison said. "I wish we had another one tomorrow. We want to be on the right track and keep it going. Just continue to play well as a team."
The Wizards led 67-59 when Butler made two free throws with 5:53 left in the third period, but the Wizards were unable to hold on to the lead. Bucks guard Charlie Bell scored seven points during an 11-3 run that evened the score at 70. The teams would trade the lead four more times, but Luke Ridnour hit an 11-foot runner to give the Bucks an 80-79 lead after three quarters.
Saunders relied heavily on his starters through the first three quarters, but he put Boykins and Andray Blatche into the game at the start of the fourth period and they provided the necessary boost for his ragged team. Boykins and Blatche scored 17 of the Wizards' 25 points in the final period. Blatche had six of his 10 in the final frame. "We're getting there. We're still learning. We're not blowing anybody out by 40, but you know what, we're winning," Arenas said.
Jennings had 17 points, but Ridnour and Hakim Warrick both had 20 points to lead the Bucks. Milwaukee (9-8) played the final three quarters without Coach Scott Skiles.
Upset when he thought Warrick was fouled on a layup, Skiles picked up two technicals and was ejected with 29.7 seconds left in the first period.
Haywood finished with eight points, 14 rebounds and two blocked shots, helping to limit Bogut to just eight points. But after the game, the players were still marveling over Boykins, who has established himself as the closer in just his third week with the team. Asked about the MVP chants, Boykins said, "I'm not into all that, honestly. I'm just happy to get a win. I'm happy the way my teammates responded."