Playoff Bid Hinges on Magic, Nets Losses
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 1998; Page D1
For once, the Washington Wizards did all they could do, ending the regular season last night at a sold-out MCI Center with a 112-95 victory over the Boston Celtics. Now they get to watch television today and find out if their ending run of four consecutive victories, their second-longest winning streak of the season, will be good enough to get them into the postseason.
The outcome of two games will determine that. The Wizards need the Detroit Pistons to beat the New Jersey Nets, and the Charlotte Hornets to defeat the Orlando Magic. If the Nets or the Magic win, the Nets will take the eighth and final berth in the Eastern Conference.
The Wizards beat the Celtics for only the second time in five meetings by breaking Boston's full-court press with relative ease committing only nine turnovers and avoiding any long lapses on defense. Center Ben Wallace led them at that end of the floor with 13 rebounds, 4 blocked shots and 5 steals. Forward Chris Webber led five players scoring in double figures with 27 points and added 13 rebounds, and also had a team-leading eight assists.
Antoine Walker and Ron Mercer led the Celtics with 18 points each, and Walker led them in rebounds with 13. But without point guard Kenny Anderson (bruised left knee), the Celtics simply didn't have enough talent or motivation to beat the Wizards, who had the edge in both.
The Celtics built a five-point lead several times early in the third quarter, their first time ahead since starting the game with a 5-0 burst. Most of the damage came from Mercer, who, after being held to four points in 13 first-half minutes, scored 10 points in 10 third-quarter minutes.
But the Wizards rallied, and once again point guard Chris Whitney came through with the momentum-turning plays. Boston still led 69-64 after a jumper by Mercer, but Whitney drove and hit a leaning jumper. He cut the difference to two with a free throw and then assisted on an eight-foot jumper by Webber that tied the score at 69.
Whitney then gave the Wizards the lead for good, 70-69, by making a free throw, awarded because of a technical foul on Walker for arguing with referee Leroy Richardson.
The Wizards went on to close the period by outscoring the Celtics 11-3, the run capped by two ferocious dunks from forward Darvin Ham, the last with four-tenths of second on the clock off a feed from Webber. The Celtics never got closer than six in the final period.
It was clear at the start last night that the Wizards knew the stakes were high.
Trainer Kevin Johnson, who usually keeps Coach Bernie Bickerstaff aware of the Wizards' allotment of timeouts and fouls in a calm voice, was barking out the information last night. Bickerstaff was more on edge than usual, chastising his assistants for not relaying to Calbert Cheaney that he wanted him to check in at the scorer's table.
But the pressure was particularly evident on offense. The Wizards had been a nice blend of players in motion and crisp passes during their three-game winning streak coming into the game. All that disappeared in the opening minutes against the Celtics. The Wizards missed six of their first nine shots with a combination of rushed passes and forced field goal attempts.
They survived the poor start because Boston wasn't any better. Boston made its first two shots, then missed six of the next seven. It was 7-7 when the Wizards took a timeout with 6 minutes 39 seconds left in the first quarter.
The Wizards seemed to settle down after that, scoring on 10 of their last 12 possessions of the quarter to take a 25-17 lead.
That bulge grew to 15 points in the second quarter before Boston Coach Rick Pitino, back after being too ill to coach the Celtics in their victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night, called a timeout with 9:19 left in the period. He then called for his team's vaunted full-court press.
In the teams' previous four meetings this caused problems for the Wizards. This time they got the ball upcourt without too much trouble, scoring on back-to-back dunks by Wallace the first two times they faced the pressure. Out of 10 possessions against it, they committed only one turnover.
But the press did have an impact. It helped the Celtics shrink the Wizards' lead to 50-49 at halftime because all the effort the Wizards required to get across half court safely appeared to sap their defensive intensity.
That lack of concentration was particularly apparent around the basket, as the Celtics scored eight of their last 11 points in the second quarter on putbacks and had nine offensive rebounds to Washington's four.
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