By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; D05
DENVER -- Playing their fifth game in six nights, against a team that they upset nearly a month ago, and in the exhaustive high altitude of the Rocky Mountains, the Washington Wizards appeared to be set up for massacre on Tuesday against the Denver Nuggets. But the Wizards refused to lay down for a slaughter, leading for more than 28 minutes and staying within range of a Western Conference contender until they eventually succumbed to fatigue and attrition.
For a team that endured more than its share of hardships this season, the Wizards got another scare when Andray Blatche -- one of the few bright spots of a miserable stretch since the all-star break -- collapsed under the basket, grabbing his left ankle with 6 minutes 48 seconds left. With their best offensive weapon forced to leave shortly thereafter, the Wizards had little left to counter the Nuggets as they lost, 97-87, at Pepsi Center.
The beleaguered Wizards (21-45) have now lost nine games in a row for the first time since Jan. 4-19, 2001, when the team set the since-matched mark for fewest wins in an 82-game season with 19. They will have two days to rest and recover before playing Portland on Friday, but the availability of Blatche remains uncertain.
"Just tweaked it real bad. It's a little swollen, real sore," Blatche said after scoring a team-high 23 points with eight rebounds. "I should be all right in time for Friday's game. I'll see if I can go."
Blatche continued his solid play since the Wizards shipped away Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler in salary-dumping deals at the trade deadline. But with the Wizards trailing, 77-70, in the fourth quarter, Blatche stepped on the foot of Nuggets forward Nene and fell to the ground after his ankle bent sideways.
Nene later dunked over Blatche, who covered himself and rolled out of way. Blatche returned to the game after a timeout, but he had a noticeable limp. When he failed to jump on either end of the floor, Saunders was forced to sit him for the rest of the night. Blatche limped to the locker room with just 5:40 remaining and his team trailing by just five points.
"He just couldn't move," Saunders said. "He probably wanted to stay on it, but we just didn't want to take any chance. We don't have enough guys as it is right now, the way he's been playing, and I was impressed with how he played again. We just didn't have enough juice down the stretch."
J.R. Smith scored nine of his 17 points over the next 2 1/2 minutes, as the Nuggets extended the lead to 88-78. And, Carmelo Anthony finished with game-highs of 29 points and 12 rebounds, as the Nuggets (45-22) won for the seventh time in eight games.
The Wizards lost the first game of the hoopocalypse by six to Atlanta, but they failed to stay within double figures in losses to Detroit, Orlando and Utah, losing the previous three games by an average of 17 points. They had suffered their worst road loss of the season the night before in Salt Lake City, where the Jazz won, 112-89, but led by 34 points in the second half.
"That's the hardest thing," Blatche said. "A lot of success that I'm having, I'm not as excited off it because we're losing and it doesn't really mean nothing. We have a job. Breakdown in the job, you got to stay positive and be mature with it and be a family and try to get the next win."
When the teams met on Feb. 19, the Wizards defeated the Nuggets, 107-97, as Josh Howard scored 20 points in that win. But Howard was in New York having surgery on a torn ligament in his left knee while his teammates were preparing for the rematch. Howard was injured during a win against Chicago on Feb. 22, but the Wizards have won only one of their past 12 games without him.
Thornton came off the bench to score 21 points in his debut against Denver last month, riding the emotion of his trade from the Los Angeles Clippers the day before. Thornton also played solid defense against Anthony, holding him without a field goal in the fourth quarter.
On Tuesday, Thornton scored nine points on 4 of 4 shooting in the first 10 minutes of the game, but he fouled out after scoring just 16 points. "A lot of those fouls were questionable, but at the end of day, I guess I've got to be smarter and watch my fouls," Thornton said. "You find yourself trying to play it safe like that."
Alonzo Gee had his first career double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds and made a ridiculous, running half court shot to bring his team to 65-63 at the end of the third period. Saunders said after the game that the Wizards will sign him to a second 10-day contract. "There is no question, he's a guy that can play in this league. I like the things he does," Saunders said.
The Nuggets had a six-game win streak snapped the night before in Houston, but if they were fired up about getting redemption against the Wizards -- or in welcoming back Coach George Karl -- it didn't show early on.
The Wizards scored the first five points game and led 45-39 at halftime. The Nuggets didn't take their first lead until Arron Afflalo hit a three-pointer to put his team ahead by two. Nene gave the Nuggets the lead for good with a dunk that put them ahead, 58-56, with 6:07 left in the third period.
Karl had missed the previous four games to receive chemotherapy and radiation treatments for neck and throat cancer.