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  •   Wizards Hit a Rocky Mountain Low

    By Ric Bucher
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, March 18, 1998; Page C1

    The Washington Wizards started last night poking each other and craning their necks to get a peek at former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, sitting three rows behind their bench, but by the end they could barely lift their heads. In a season studded with morale-boosting victories and equally demoralizing losses, the Wizards lost, 90-89, to the Denver Nuggets — the worst team in the NBA this season, and possibly in its history.

    The Wizards, who had star forward Juwan Howard back after missing 16 games, wasted a seven-point lead with 1 minute 39 seconds left and Denver's Anthony Goldwire made a three-pointer with 7.2 seconds left to put the Nuggets ahead. Wizards Chris Webber and Tracy Murray missed shots in the time that remained.

    "We got what we deserved," Wizards Coach Bernie Bickerstaff said. "Life is about opportunities and if you don't take advantage of them, life is hard."

    So is making the playoffs while suffering such improbable losses. The Nuggets (8-59) arrived having won two of their previous three games but 24 hours after having lost to the Charlotte Hornets and with only one road win to their credit all season. The Wizards, meanwhile, had two days to prepare with the enticement of going four games over .500 for the first time this season and a full game ahead of the New Jersey Nets for the Eastern Conference's eighth playoff spot.

    "We had an opportunity to make free throws down the stretch and we didn't," Bickerstaff said. "We had a chance to make plays and we didn't. We played as if we felt we could turn it on when we chose to."

    For a while, it looked as if the Wizards might get away with playing that way. After allowing Denver to jump out to an 8-2 lead, they concentrated just long enough to get in front but never extended their lead to more than 10, settling for a 49-43 halftime lead. Finally, the Wizards executed at both ends long enough to hold Denver scoreless for a four-min ute stretch bridging the third and fourth quarters, resulting in a 14-point lead with just under 10o minutes left.

    "That's when we got lethargic," Bickerstaff said. "We started going through the motions."

    The Nuggets took full advantage, using a combination of three-point bombs and dunks to close the gap to two with more than four minutes left. The Wizards made one more push, expanding their lead back to seven with 99 seconds left. But a pair of missed free throws by Calbert Cheaney, combined with a three-pointer by LaPhonso Ellis cut the difference to 87-83. Point guard Rod Strickland then made only 1 of 2 free throws and Danny Fortson scored on a layup to trim the lead to three. A missed baseline jumper by Howard, combined with a driving layup by Bobby Jackson cut it to one.

    After Strickland made only 1 of 2 free throws again, Goldwire drove home the final dagger with seven seconds left, sinking a three-pointer from the left corner to put the Nuggets ahead by one. Ellis led five Nuggets in double figures with 18 points, while Webber scored a game-high 26.

    "This one, I can't lie, is a tough one to swallow," Strickland said. "It's tough for me personally because of the missed free throws."

    After all that, though, the Wizards (34-32) still had two more chances to win. Webber took the first crack, but his step-back jumper over Dean Garrett hit the side of the backboard. The ball bounced out of bounds off a Nuggets' player with 1.7 seconds left, giving them a second chance, but Murray's jump shot at the buzzer was blocked by Johnny Newman before it left his hand.

    "We just hung in there," said Nuggets Coach Bill Hanzlik. "If Washington makes their free throws, they would have had us."

    A psychiatrist would have had a field day in the Wizards' locker room afterward. Howard, making his first appearance since spraining his left ankle Feb. 5, talked about "being overjoyed" about playing again and "the hurt" of such a devastating loss. Strickland borrowed someone's deodorant and then suddenly realized he'd already put some on, saying, "That's how [messed] up I am right now." Webber, asked a variety of questions, said "I don't know" five times in a row, adding, "It's not funny or sarcastic, right now I'm just blown back. I really don't know what the next step is."

    The defeat amounted to a student failing a test for the third time despite being provided with the answers. For the Wizards already had lost to the league's second-worst team, the Dallas Mavericks, 2o weeks ago and the worst team in the Atlantic Division, the Philadelphia 76ers, last week. All of which made it seem almost impossible that they'd overlook yet another inferior opponent.

    "You figure it out," Bickerstaff said. "I can't."

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