By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 12:24 AM
With their anointed future of the franchise relegated to spectator status because of an injury, the Washington Wizards got another throwback performance from guard Gilbert Arenas on Saturday night to give mighty Orlando all it could handle in a game that based on standings and statistics had no business being competitive, much less down to the wire.
The Wizards confronted those long odds without flinching and despite losing, 100-99, produced for the first time this season a redeeming effort against one of the NBA's finest outfits. That's no minor achievement considering how poorly Washington had played when facing some of the league's other elite franchises, and it provided a measure of satisfaction even after the deflating final moments.
That's when Arenas had the ball in his hands with four seconds to play, and an improbable win remained in the offing before 16,435 at Verizon Center. All that stood between him and the basket was Magic guard Jameer Nelson, and Arenas wasn't about to give up the ball after having scored 11 consecutive points to put the Wizards in this position. As Arenas made his move, Orlando center Dwight Howard came over to help, forcing what was supposed to be a layup into a fall-away one-hander that bounced tantalizingly on the rim before rattling off at the buzzer.
"The way we played, it's like we felt like we did get it," Arenas said. "It's not one of those losses like we had in Atlanta [116-96 on Thursday] where it's a dagger to the heart. We felt like we played hard enough to win."
Arenas finished with a season-high 31 points, recovering nicely from a first half in which he missed 8 of 11 shots, and added five rebounds and five assists. Guard Nick Young contributed a season-high 21 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter when he made four consecutive baskets to give the Wizards an 87-82 lead with 7 minutes 40 seconds to play.
Andray Blatche added 10 points and a game-high 13 rebounds for the Wizards, who outrebounded Orlando, 47-38, in a stunning development in light of the presence of Howard, the Eastern Conference's preeminent center. The four-time all-star had a game-high 32 points, including a leaner off the glass with four seconds to play that wound up being the difference.
"We competed. We fell behind, and we fought back unlike we did as far as Atlanta," Wizards Coach Flip Saunders said. "We moved the ball better at times. I thought we played with a little bit more confidence at times. It's disappointing we didn't come away with the win because you'd like to have the win as positive reinforcement."
The Wizards (5-10), who did not have the services of rookie point guard John Wall because of a bruised right knee, appeared on their way to their first victory against a team with a winning record after Arenas made a pair of free throws for a 95-91 lead with 2:13 to play. But Quentin Richardson (20 points) sank a three-pointer to draw Orlando (12-4) to within one, and neither team led by more than a point the rest of the way.
Trailing by 10 at halftime, the Wizards kept their unlikely aspirations afloat with a 6-0 burst capped by Kirk Hinrich's three-pointer that cut the deficit to 61-55 with 8:34 remaining in the third quarter. That prompted Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy to call timeout in an attempt to stem the momentum.
Washington instead came out of the break even more determined, with center JaVale McGee's block of Nelson's driving layup attempt leading to a fast break for Arenas. Then came the first of two offensive fouls charged to Arenas, this one assessed after he made the basket despite contact on his way up. Arenas shook off that disputed call to convert a three-point play moments later, and Washington was within 63-58 with seven minutes to go.
Washington tacked on the next six points consecutively, and Arenas was heavily involved. After McGee made 1 of 2 free throws, Arenas made a three-pointer and then a two foul shots to give the Wizards their first lead, 64-63, with 5:18 to play in the quarter. Orlando regained the lead, 68-64, thanks to a three-point play and an alley-oop dunk from Howard after which Saunders called timeout.
The Wizards emerged from the stoppage inspired again, getting a free throw by Alonzo Gee and a three-pointer and 16-foot jumper from Young to reclaim the lead, 70-68, with 2:59 to play. Those field goals would be a mere prelude to a breathtaking run of sharpshooting by Young in the final period that had the Wizards headed for a dramatic conclusion.
"It felt good because every big game or TV game, we always seem to get embarrassed," said Young, who has scored at least 20 points in five games, the most in the league among reserves. "Tonight we didn't want to do that in front of our fans, and just for ourselves, we felt we had to compete with the best teams in the East and in the league, and we wanted to go out there and prove ourselves."