With ejected point guard Rod Strickland in the locker room for all but one minute of the second half, the Washington Wizards withstood a wave of third-quarter fouls and a fourth-quarter comeback attempt to defeat the Detroit Pistons, 97-83, tonight before 14,181 at The Palace.
The tough performance that led to the systematic dismantling of the Pistons--whose coach, Alvin Gentry, also was ejected--gave Washington its third consecutive victory, a string of success it has not experienced since February of last season.
"We weren't going to be denied," said forward Michael Smith, who had a game-high 13 rebounds. "We kept our heads, played through the tough stretches and played things out."
Guard Mitch Richmond scored eight of his game-high 33 points in the fourth quarter, including a baseline jump shot with 1 minute 56 seconds left that extended Washington's lead to 91-81.
Richmond's dynamic scoring binge carried Washington in the second half while backup point guard Chris Whitney (eight points, eight assists) filled in admirably for Strickland during two difficult stretches in the third and fourth quarters.
"One thing I do is lead. I'm a leader," Whitney said. "I wasn't a big difference for us, we just had to go out and continue to play."
The Wizards also played stout defense for the second straight game, holding the league's second highest-scoring team 21 points below its average. Detroit shot 36 percent from the field but stayed close on the strength of its 28-15 advantage in free throws made.
Washington never trailed after 4-2.
Whitney helped Washington get through a near collapse immediately after Strickland was ejected with 10:36 left in the third period when he received his second technical from referee Jack Nies, who called back-to-back fouls on the Wizards' point guard.
After being called for a charge by Nies, Strickland ran toward Nies and appeared to argue the call. He drew a technical.
"I was trying to tell him I wasn't trying to show him up," Strickland said. "He said I was trying to show him up."
Just more than 20 seconds later, Strickland was called for his fourth foul. With Whitney set to come in for him, Strickland walked past Nies, who was standing by the Wizards' bench, and told Nies: "It must have been something I did last year. It's personal."
Nies turned to the scorer's table and signaled another technical foul. Strickland continued walking to the locker room since two technicals result in an ejection.
Washington led 53-45 when Strickland was ejected. Detroit gradually got to 59-55 by scoring exclusively from the foul line. From there, seven straight points put Washington up by 11, a margin that grew to 15 before the third period ended 75-63.
"The only way they were scoring was at the line every time down," Wizards Coach Gar Heard said. "When Rod got thrown out, Chris came in and did a great job for us. I think this team is finally coming together."
Washington squandered its big third-quarter lead midway through the fourth when Christian Laettner's jump hook brought Detroit to 85-80. Juwan Howard (16 points, five rebounds) answered with back-to-back baskets to put the Wizards up 89-81. Richmond followed with his game-sealing jumper.
"This was a test of helping one another," Richmond said. "The fourth quarter--at times we got away from posting the ball first and kicking out. Losing Rod was tough but we had to tip our hats to Whitney."
Washington took advantage of the physically and emotionally drained Pistons (12-14), who lost to Philadelphia in overtime on a buzzer-beater Monday night. Detroit was heavy-legged and sporadic for most of the first three quarters but the fourth-quarter surge, sparked by forward Grant Hill (25 points), allowed the Pistons to briefly make a game of things.
Wizards center Jahidi White had 10 rebounds in just 15 minutes and backup forward Tracy Murray scored 12 points, leading the Wizards' reserve to a 31-11 scoring advantage over the Pistons' substitutes.
Pistons guard Jerry Stackhouse scored 20 points and Laettner had 12.
Gentry was ejected with eight minutes 38 seconds left in the first half after being hit with two technical fouls by Nies for arguing an offensive foul against forward Jerome Williams.
After being tagged with the second infraction, Gentry had to be restrained by guard Lindsey Hunter (10 points). After Gentry left the court, Hunter walked up to Heard and said, "It's your fault."
Heard, Gentry's lead assistant in Detroit last season, jokingly said, "He started it."
Assistant George Irvine took over for Gentry.
Wizards Notes: Shooting guard Richard Hamilton (sprained right pinkie finger) will not be activated off the injured list during the two-game road trip, Heard said. Heard wants Hamilton, who has missed the past six games, to get in more practice since he has worked with the team just once since injuring his finger Dec. 8.
Hamilton, who backs up Richmond, will practice with the team on Wednesday in Houston but won't face the Rockets Thursday night. Washington is not expected to practice Friday or Saturday. Reggie Jordan will continue to spell Richmond.