Washington Wizards Coach Gar Heard said he placed significant emphasis on tonight's game with New Jersey to see if his team had enough fortitude and focus to start a winning trend.
He did not get the answer that he wanted until the fourth quarter, and he got it from four reserves and starting forward Juwan Howard.
Washington overcame a 15-point, third-quarter deficit by holding the Nets without a field goal over the final 5 minutes 55 seconds, and emerged with an 85-78 victory over struggling New Jersey before 13,507 at Continental Airlines Arena.
"It looked kind of bad for a while, but I have to give the defense a lot of credit," Heard said about his team's second-half performance. "We were rotating to the ball, rotating to the shooters. When they shot and missed, we had a chance to get rebounds.
"They learned tonight that they're capable of coming back and winning games. We've been getting down by 15 and 20 points and we'll get back close, but this was the first one that we came back and won."
After falling behind 67-52 late in the third quarter, the Wizards outscored New Jersey 33-11 to snap their two-game losing streak and improve to 5-10. The Nets, last in the Atlantic Division, lost their third straight and fell to 2-13, tying a franchise-worst start.
Wizards guard Richard Hamilton had nine fourth-quarter points, including a three-pointer that gave Washington an 81-77 lead. His three-point jumper came after Howard converted a three-point play that gave the Wizards a 78-77 lead, their first advantage since the opening period.
Aaron Williams's layin of an air ball by Tracy Murray with 24 seconds remaining gave Washington an 83-78 lead and sealed the victory.
"I think the play of the game was the tip-in [Williams] made to put us up five," Heard said.
Said Williams: "I saw that the shot was going to be short, so I just tried to grab it and flip it toward the rim and luckily it went in."
Williams provided more than the clutch bucket. He finished with eight points, seven rebounds and two fourth-quarter blocks, the second on Sherman Douglas's shot with 18.4 seconds left.
Washington held the Nets scoreless for more than four minutes in the fourth period after Jamie Feick's tip-in gave New Jersey a 77-73 lead. Feick's free throw, which made the score 81-78 with 48 seconds left, was New Jersey's final point.
The Nets scored 29 points after halftime, their season low for a second half.
New Jersey committed 13 of their 23 turnovers in the second half, and Washington converted the miscues into 28 points.
"At the end we just got stagnant," Nets guard Stephon Marbury said. "We had the game. We just stopped doing what we were doing at the beginning of the game. ... When other teams make runs, we forget to run our plays. We start going through the motions. ... I just don't understand."
Howard had a strong game, scoring a season-high 23 points--the most by any Wizards player this season--and grabbing eight rebounds.
He also tied a career high with five steals. Hamilton scored 13 points and center Ike Austin had 10.
No other player scored in double figures. Forward Michael Smith had a team-high 13 rebounds.
"I have to say that because of our defense, we were able to get some stops and score a lot of layups," Howard said.
"A lot of it had to do with them getting the ball to me in the low post. The team responded by giving me the ball. It wasn't just me. Plus we just kept getting stop after stop."
Guard Rod Strickland and Austin did not play in the fourth quarter, and guard Mitch Richmond (eight points) played one minute.
"When we got on a roll, I didn't want to make any changes," Heard said.
Nets forward Keith Van Horn led all scorers with 24 points, two in the fourth quarter.
Feick had 15 points and a game-high 16 rebounds. Marbury had 14 points.
The Wizards' reserve-laden lineup built on a strong third-quarter finish and pulled within 71-69 following Hamilton's steal and driving dunk with 8:37 left in the game.
The play capped a 17-4 run that started in the third quarter. New Jersey extended its lead to five, but Murray's three-point jump shot from the right corner brought Washington within 75-73 with just over six minutes left.
The Wizards used a 7-0 run over the final 1:30 of the third quarter to make the score 67-59.
It was the first time they trailed by fewer than 10 points since Richmond's layup with 8:17 left in the quarter that brought Washington to 51-43.
Until then, the Wizards struggled in nearly every facet of the game. They shot 32 percent in the first half.
Wizards Notes: There was some question as to whether Strickland would start after he missed the morning shoot-around with a stomach ailment. Strickland played 25 minutes, scoring eight points and dishing out four assists. ... Marbury, who was criticized by several teammates in a recent New York Times article, wore a message taped to his left ankle that read "33 All Alone." Marbury, who leads the Nets with 25.2 points per game, has come under fire for failing to distribute the ball more often.
Wizards vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
Where: MCI Center.
When: 7 p.m.
TV/Radio: HTS; WTEM-980.
Tickets: Available, $19, $32, $40, $67, $77.
Records: Wizards 5-10, Cavaliers 7-6.
Injuries: Wizards -- G Laron Profit (tendinitis left knee), F Lorenzo Williams (recovering from knee surgery), C Calvin Booth (strained right hamstring) are on the injured list; Cavaliers -- G Trajan Langdon (swollen right knee) is questionable, F A. J. Bramlett (lower back strain) and C Zydrunas Ilgauskas (recovering from left foot surgery) are on the injured list.