Shortly before yesterday afternoon's tip-off against the visiting Boston Celtics, the Washington Wizards learned that shooting guard Mitch Richmond, their leading scorer at 16.8 points a game, has a broken right rib and will be out for at least two weeks.
As if they needed anything else to go wrong--the Wizards had enough problems with everybody healthy.
Boston shooting guard Paul Pierce took advantage of Richmond's absence, scoring 18 of his career-high 34 points in the fourth quarter to rally the Celtics from a 14-point deficit in a compelling 105-101 victory over Washington before 14,441 at MCI Center.
Celtics forward Antoine Walker bolstered Pierce's outing with 31 points. That total was matched by the Wizards' Juwan Howard, who recorded his biggest offensive game over the past two seasons.
"This is a game that we showed we could use Mitch, especially on the defensive end," Wizards Coach Gar Heard said. "They had two guys that really took advantage of it.
"They had 65 points from their top two players. When that happens, it's going to be tough to beat a team like that. And we're still giving [the ball] away just too much. We had another 20 turnovers."
Washington (12-27), last in the Atlantic Division, lost its fourth straight and seventh in eight games. Boston, which has defeated the Wizards in five consecutive meetings, snapped a two-game losing streak to improve to 17-20.
Howard nearly matched Pierce in the fourth quarter, scoring 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting. However, his performance was undone, in part, by the Celtics' performance at the free throw line. Boston made 13 of 14 foul shots in the fourth quarter; the Wizards made 5 of 6.
"This is the best we've clicked all season," said Walker, who also had 11 rebounds.
Pierce made 12 of 16 field goal attempts and took turns scoring against Richmond's replacements, rookie guard Richard Hamilton and backup Reggie Jordan. Jordan was guarding Pierce when he made his most important shot of the day.
With his team ahead 102-101 in the waning seconds, Pierce was forced to his left by Jordan after taking a pass from point guard Kenny Anderson with the shot clock winding down.
Pierce gathered himself, faked Jordan up and then ducked under him before completing an 11-foot jump shot from inside the lane to put the Celtics up by three.
"I made him go to his left, made him take a tough shot," said Jordan, who was inserted for Hamilton in a defensive switch just before Pierce's big shot. "I can't knock anything that happened. He made a tough shot."
Pierce said: "I'm playing the best basketball that I can play. I took my time and thought [about the shot]. I wasn't rushing it."
The Wizards had a chance to tie after taking possession with 13 seconds remaining. At such a point in a game, Washington usually would turn to Richmond, perhaps the team's best player in the clutch. Instead, Hamilton took the potential game-tying shot.
Boston denied any passes to forward Tracy Murray, the Wizards' best three-point shooter, and Hamilton ended up with the ball. His shot, from beyond the left wing of the three-point arc, circled the rim before falling out.
"I thought I had it when the ball came out of my palm," Hamilton said.
Anderson made one of two foul shots to seal the game.
Just before Pierce's big shot, point guard Rod Strickland (24 points) brought Washington within one with a nifty layup and free throw after being fouled by Anderson. Washington failed to score again.
"It's like something goes wrong every time," said Strickland, who had six assists.
The Wizards shot 51.3 percent to take a 51-47 halftime lead. Washington led 37-23 early in the second period after center Ike Austin hit a 16-foot jump shot.
From there, Boston went on a 17-6 run to pull to 43-40 after a layup by Walker. Boston later tied the score at 45 on a three-pointer by Walter McCarty.
Behind 12 points from Walker, the Celtics led by 10 in the third. Washington closed to 78-74 after two free throws by forward Aaron Williams to end the period.
"Once you're in front, sometimes it's hard to close it," Strickland said of Washington's failure to maintain leads.
Howard said the Wizards are tired of losing and that something must change soon. No one has given up on the season, he said.
"Of course you get down," Howard said. "It's depressing. No one's having any fun because you're losing, but no one's going to throw in the towel. We're going to find a way to turn this thing around."