The Washington Wizards put forth a valiant effort that even their sharpest critics could appreciate in a double-overtime thriller with the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night.
But despite Tracy Murray's seven three-pointers, Rod Strickland's near triple-double and Mitch Richmond's clutch 16-foot jump shot with 1.6 seconds remaining that gave Washington a seemingly insurmountable lead, the Wizards lost their third in a row, 130-129.
In the end, Washington allowed Milwaukee's Vinny Del Negro to zip an inbounds pass from the half-court sideline to center Scott Williams, who caught the ball under the basket and dunked in the game-winner with two-tenths of a second left as Aaron Williams was caught out of position.
"We lost like the Buffalo Bills," Richmond said, referring to Buffalo's last-second loss to the Tennessee Titans on a dramatic kickoff return in a first-round NFL playoff game earlier in the day.
The question that arises is, if the Wizards could play as well as they did in Milwaukee and still lose, is this as good as it gets for this team?
"No," Coach Gar Heard said yesterday. "We played well enough to win. Teams aren't going to score 130 points every night. The thing is, when you get chances to win, you have to take advantage of those chances. We just made mistakes at the wrong times."
They have made mistakes at the wrong times on numerous occasions. In a last-second loss at Toronto Dec. 3, guard Reggie Jordan allowed himself to get caught in a pick by Charles Oakley, giving guard Dee Brown enough time to spring open and fire an uncontested three-pointer to win the game.
In a loss to Chicago last week, the Wizards allowed Bulls forward Toni Kukoc to run down the lane, take an inbounds pass under the basket and score on a fourth-quarter layup with one-tenth of a second left on the clock.
These miscues have come in games in which the Wizards (11-23) have been competitive and seemingly playing their best. Twice last week, they lost to the last-place Bulls because of poor effort, lack of focus and questionable decisions.
"I told the guys we can't do this [play hard] one night and not do it the next," Heard said. "We need to do this every night."
Against the Bucks, the Wizards had several miscues at inopportune times, the most glaring coming on the game's last play.
The Wizards had a foul to give on the inbounds play, so all someone had to do was foul the player who caught the inbounds pass before that player could get a shot off. Time likely would have expired and the Wizards would have claimed the victory.
However, Aaron Williams allowed Scott Williams to slip inside of him, then catch the pass from Del Negro. It was a devastating mistake, especially since players said they knew they were supposed to foul. But it was not the Wizards' lone blown chance.
With 14.1 seconds left in the second extra period, after Richmond (25 points) hit a three-pointer to give Washington a 127-126 lead, Aaron Williams missed two free throws--baskets that could have given the Wizards enough of a cushion to pull off the win.
And there were other missed free throws that hurt the Wizards.
Late in the first overtime, Murray (team-high 27 points) and Strickland (24 points, 12 assists, 7 rebounds) each missed one of two foul shots. Even so, after Strickland missed his with 5.3 seconds left, Washington led 118-116.
Aaron Williams then was called for a foul against Bucks point guard Sam Cassell as time expired. Cassell made both free throws to send the game into a second overtime.
"The referees bailed them out," Heard said of the call. "You don't make that call with that much time left. . . . I'm sure Aaron feels as bad as, if not worse, than anybody on the team."
In the fourth quarter, after the Wizards rallied from a seven-point deficit with 1 minute 54 seconds left, two missed free throws--one by Richmond, one by Michael Smith--cost them. In contrast, the Bucks made all five of their foul shots down the stretch.
"The bottom line is if we make the free throws we win the game," Heard said.