With his starting job in question, Washington Wizards center Ike Austin volunteered before the game to come off the bench. As fate would have it, his replacement, Jahidi White, couldn't play because of a pinched nerve in his neck.
Austin, with a renewed fervor and a concerted effort to establish himself, responded with his best game of the season to lead the struggling Wizards to a convincing 92-81 victory over the Toronto Raptors last night before 12,134 at MCI Center.
The victory stopped a seven-game losing streak and gave the Wizards (2-7) their first win since the season opener against the Atlanta Hawks. It also gave Austin, who has been slowed by a strained left hip flexor, much-needed confidence.
"I took it upon myself to ask coach, I told him the truth, that I'm still a little bit hurt," said Austin, who scored a team-high 20 points and grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds. "I said, 'Maybe I need to come off the bench.' It didn't work out like that and tonight, we came out and overall we played hard and we played together."
Austin aggravated his hip flexor injury in the third quarter when he and forward Juwan Howard scored all but three of Washington's 20 points. Austin said he would be okay to play in Saturday's home game against the Los Angeles Clippers.
For the first time this season, Washington, which led by as many as 12, never trailed. Players and Coach Gar Heard said that made a difference in their effort and overall performance.
"We've started out in a hole so deep I never get a chance to coach," Heard said about his team's previous seven games. "If we can stay ahead, then when we do make our run, we can pull away instead of trying to catch up. We've made a lot of runs, but unfortunately every game when we made a run, we had to catch up. Tonight we were even and we pulled away."
Also crucial, players said, was how Washington held its poise when the Raptors (5-3) tied the score four times in the third quarter and pulled to 83-79 late in the fourth quarter after Vince Carter's spectacular driving dunk, in which he brought the ball around his body, got fouled and made the ensuing free throw.
After the crowd-stirring play, power forward Aaron Williams made a crucial steal and blocked another dunk attempt by Carter. Washington made seven of 10 foul shots in the final minute before Williams's game-ending dunk.
"We finally came out with a sense of urgency," said Williams, who had 10 points and five rebounds. "We stepped it up in all parts of the game, but especially on defense."
Austin will retain his starting job, as will guard Richard Hamilton (eight points), who was the only new player in a starting lineup Heard had wanted to shuffle. Power forward Michael Smith was supposed to be replaced by Williams, but Williams suffered bruised ribs in practice Wednesday and Heard decided to bring him off the bench.
Like Austin, Smith took advantage of starting. The workhorse forward grabbed 10 rebounds and scored a season-high 12 points. He also ignited Washington's interior offense by scoring the game's first basket on a layup.
"Everybody was frustrated because we were losing," Smith said. "We just need to go up and jump on teams and play our game."
The Wizards also played their best defensive game, particularly in the second half. Though Carter scored a game-high 23, he scored just seven in the second half. Guard Dee Brown (11 points) was the only other Toronto player to score in double figures. The Wizards held the Raptors to 32.9 percent shooting and outrebounded them 56-46.
"Sometimes, in games like tonight, we can become complacent about teams like the Wizards," said Toronto forward Charles Oakley.
Washington made a concerted effort to establish its inside game on offense and for the first time this season, it was successful. Washington outscored Toronto 38-24 in the lane and four of its five players who scored in double figures were front-court players. Guard Mitch Richmond, who came off the bench for the first time in his 12-year career, added 10.
Showing the poise that has escaped it all season, Washington ended the third period up 70-65 after it blew a seven-point lead early in the quarter.
Washington was up 50-44 at halftime, but Toronto opened the third quarter with a 9-4 run to pull to 54-53. Austin scored four of the Wizards' next five points to extend the lead to six, but the Raptors countered with six unanswered points, the final pair being two free throws by Oakley, to tie the score at 59 with 4 minutes 41 seconds left in the quarter.
It was the first time the Wizards had not led. The Raptors tied the score three more times but Washington never trailed. The Wizards pulled away after Richmond converted a three-point play and Howard knocked down an 18-foot jumper to close the period.
"We've been through a tough stretch and we pulled together as a team," Heard said. "The guys were determined they were going to win tonight and I thought we set the tone of the game from the beginning."
Wizards Notes: Wizards players, team owner Abe Pollin and members of the team's front office will serve lunch to the less fortunate today at 12:30 at Calvary Baptist Church in Northwest Washington. . . . Guard Reggie Jordan, who spent the first eight games on the injured list with tendinitis in his right knee, was activated. Rookie guard Laron Profit, who has tendinitis in his left knee, was placed on the injured list.