Sparked by their reserves and a high-banking layup by point guard Rod Strickland with 1 minute 10 seconds left, the Washington Wizards defeated the Atlanta Hawks, 94-87, in Gar Heard's coaching debut last night before an MCI Center crowd of 16,038.
With the fans on their feet and cheering well beyond the game's final buzzer, Wizards trainer Kevin Johnson grabbed the game ball for Heard to house in his trophy case. All 12 players should sign it because the dozen Wizards who played all served a vital role in the outcome.
Washington's reserves scored 45 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. Rookie guard Laron Profit was the only player who did not score or play double-digit minutes, but he was in at the end of the game and forced Hawks guard Jimmy Jackson into a bad pass that all but ended Atlanta's hopes of rallying from a 16-point deficit.
"I have to give credit to the bench and the young kids that came in and made some big plays for us and kept us in the game," Heard said. "All 12 guys contributed and helped us win this game. We had a big lead and almost gave half of it back but the most important thing for this team now is to win."
Every player on the active roster was forced to play because of early foul trouble and the ineffectiveness of some starters. Three of Washington's bench players scored in double figures, with forward Gerard King leading the way with 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting. Rookie guard Richard Hamilton and point guard Chris Whitney added 10 apiece in reserve roles.
"We played the most minutes during preseason and the bench played well during preseason," King said. "It's real important because this second unit is pushing everyone. We came in and made some big plays. We're a deep team."
Juwan Howard led Washington with 21 points. Strickland, whose late layup ended all scoring and snapped Atlanta's 9-0 run, finished with 12 points and 10 assists. With Washington's late lead slipping away, Heard said Strickland came to him and called for Washington to run a pick-and-roll play.
"I was open a few times earlier when we ran that play, so I felt we could get something out of it," Strickland said.
Shooting guard Mitch Richmond and center Ike Austin, both of whom were injured for the most of the preseason, struggled offensively. Richmond fouled out after scoring just six points on 3-of-13 shooting. Austin scored only four points but he grabbed a team-best 11 rebounds and blocked two shots. Power forward Michael Smith hauled in nine rebounds and also had two blocks.
It clearly was a game in which one part complemented the other.
"The bench carried us," Smith said.
Especially in the first half. With the starters, who did not play together except the first two practices of training camp, rusty and out of sync because of a wealth of fouls on both teams, Washington's reserves scored 29 points in leading the Wizards to a 52-45 halftime edge. King scored nine points in the second quarter to somewhat break open a tight game.
Washington closed the second quarter with a 13-5 run. Howard and fellow forwards Gerard King and Smith provided all the scoring in the run.
Rarely in the first half were there two consecutive possessions without a stoppage in play. The teams were called for 15 fouls each and they combined for 19 turnovers.
So many fouls were called that Heard turned to the scorer's table late in the second quarter and said, "Thank God I got 12 guys."
The NBA implemented new rules limiting contact and the way this game was called, even the slightest graze could be deemed an infraction.
"The way they called that game, you have to have 10-12 guys ready to play," Austin said. "The good thing was that when our guys were called upon, they were ready."
Atlanta forward Roshown McLeod had a game-high 22 points. Dikembe Mutombo had 12 points and 12 rebounds. Jim Jackson, who started for Isaiah Rider, added 17 points.
"I'm relieved that my bench can come in and help when we need them," Heard said. "The bench won the game for us."