Washington's reserves rallied from a 17-point deficit in the final quarter to lead the Wizards to a 88-84 preseason-opening victory tonight over the Los Angeles Lakers before 14,211 at Kemper Arena.
Until the final flurry, the Wizards starters and likely bench rotation, had problems handling Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal.
Center Ike Austin and forward Michael Smith, the team's two major offseason acquisitions, combined for just two points and eight rebounds as both were limited to a total of 31 minutes because of foul trouble.
They rang up the majority of their eight fouls trying to limit the 7-foot-1, 300-pound O'Neal, who scored a game-high 22 points and grabbed a game-best 14 rebounds.
Other than their problems trying to contain one of the league's dominant big men, the Wizards looked fairly comfortable in Coach Gar Heard's new motion offense, particularly guards Rod Strickland and Richard Hamilton and small forward Juwan Howard.
Howard had a team-high 17 points, including nine straight to start the third quarter. Second-year backup center Jahidi White, from Georgetown, provided the biggest spark off the bench, holding his own against Los Angeles' bigger front-court players -- even O'Neal.
In the first three quarters, in which both teams used their likely regular season rotations, the Wizards matched the Lakers in rebounds with 42. The draw on the boards addressed one of Heard's targeted concerns.
White led Washington with 10 rebounds. Smith had five, all in the first half. Smith and Austin were forced to leave early in the third quarter after picking up their fourth fouls immediately after Howard made consecutive baskets to pull Washington to 50-47.
Austin scored both of his points on free throws. He missed all three of his shots.
The 6-10 White, who has shown significant improvement during training camp, brought the crowd to its feet when he swatted consecutive first-quarter shots by swingman Kobe Bryant (18 points). On the second occasion, White thwarted a baseline dunk attempt by Bryant by leaving his man and rising higher above the rim than the Lakers' high-flyer. White added to his total against Bryant by pinning another dunk attempt against the glass in the second quarter.
White also held his own defensively when matched up against O'Neal. With players allowed to play physically in the lane, White matched O'Neal's muscle and did not allow the Lakers' center unchallenged shots. O'Neal did provide the evening's biggest highlight when he threw down an alley-oop dunk on a feed from Bryant. O'Neal was fouled by White on the play and converted the free throw to give Los Angeles a 59-53 lead.
Bryant started slowly but added a flamboyant basket on a reverse layup over Hamilton that increased the Lakers' third-quarter lead to 61-53. Those crowd-stirring plays came in the midst of an 11-0 Lakers run that made the score 67-53.
The only Wizard to score in the first 8 1/2 minutes of the second half was Howard, who had nine points. His replacement, Tracy Murray, knocked down a jump shot with 3 minutes 2 seconds left in the period to snap the Lakers' run.
Starting in place of injured guard Mitch Richmond, Hamilton, the Wizards' first-round draft pick from Connecticut, scored eight points. The rookie played with confidence and poise, going to the basket with authority and seemed to easily fit in on both ends.
He led Washington with eight first-half points on 4-of-6 shooting. His give-and-go layup, after taking a nice pass from Strickland, gave Washington a 37-36 second-quarter lead. It was the last time the Wizards held a first-half edge as the Lakers, spurred by guard Derek Fisher's five points, closed out the second quarter with a 12-6 run to take a 50-43 halftime lead.
Veteran guard Reggie Jordan, who is battling rookie Laron Profit (University of Maryland) and James Collins for a back court roster spot, wasted little time making his impact felt after coming in for Hamilton. With mostly reserves on the floor, Jordan scored Washington's final six points of the first quarter to give the Wizards' their first lead at 21-20.
In a side note, neither team seemed to have problems with the NBA's four new rules changes, particularly the rule limiting contact on the perimeter.
Wizards Note: Although a final decision is not expected until Thursday evening at the earliest, it is unlikely that the Wizards and Lakers will reschedule the exhibition game that was canceled Tuesday night in Little Rock, according to a Wizards source.