From afar, Michael Jordan last night began to understand how baffling his Washington Wizards can be. A game after being embarrassed by the lowly Dallas Mavericks, the Wizards played splendidly at MCI Center and beat the Indiana Pacers, 123-113, before 17,055 fans who frequently rose to their feet in admiration.
"It was probably our most complete game of the season," Coach Gar Heard said of the Wizards breaking a five-game losing streak by shooting 60 percent and recording just 10 turnovers.
The game was in sharp contrast to Wednesday, Jordan's first game as president of basketball operations. In addition to the Wizards winning, the arena was close to full. And with Jordan absent, owner Abe Pollin mostly sat alone in his box.
Juwan Howard scored a season-high 36 points on 16-of-26 shooting, point guard Rod Strickland tied his season high with 27 points and power forward Michael Smith made 9 of 12 shots for a career-high 20 points.
All this was necessary because the Wizards (13-28) missed injured Mitch Richmond for the game and his replacement, Richard Hamilton, for the last eight minutes. Hamilton suffered a cut under his right eye during a collision with Chris Mullin and said he still had blurred vision after the game.
"Hopefully, I'll be able to play [tonight] in Atlanta," Hamilton said.
In addition, backup power forward Aaron Williams played just three minutes before being ejected after getting two technical fouls for arguing an over-the-back call. All that was overcome, even though the Eastern Conference-leading Pacers (26-13) shot 46 percent and had 30 assists.
With Howard scoring mostly on jumpers from the left baseline and his teammates executing several fast breaks after fine efforts on defense, the Wizards pulled ahead for good with 6 minutes 18 seconds left and assured victory on six straight free throws by Strickland in the final 38 seconds.
"It's not like we won a championship," Howard said. "We're well aware of that. But this felt good [because] we did it together."
For all of its complexities, basketball still boils down to a few basics. To the Wizards on offense, Heard before the game stressed "play hard and smart for 48 minutes." To the Pacers on defense, Coach Larry Bird wanted "conversation"--players trying to make sure everyone moved to the proper place in constantly fluid situations.
Hard and smart eventually prevailed, with the Wizards so accurate and unselfish that they hit 12 of their first 15 shots and raced to a 33-27 lead after the first quarter.
There was much to applaud, and the crowd kept gaining enthusiasm as the passes and points came in bunches. Twice, Hamilton fed Jahidi White for dunks. Smith had two powerful follow-ups. Best of all, Howard seemed especially aggressive.
Howard gave Jordan an assist for that, saying a late-night conversation well after he'd scored just nine points against the Mavericks helped boost his confidence. He did not offer any details, but said: "He's like a big brother to me, even before he came here."
Midway through the second quarter, the crowd was not sure which Wizards team it was going to witness. Was it the team that played so well in victories on the road against the San Antonio Spurs and New York Knicks? Or was an all-too-familiar fold about to begin?
That uncertainty was because the Pacers controlled the rebounding, with backup Austin Croshere and Jalen Rose each sneaking in for offensive rebounds and converting them into points, and gained a 61-56 lead.
Also effective during this stretch was Jordan's former University of North Carolina teammate, Sam Perkins. At 37, a year older than Jordan, Perkins still is able to shoot well and made three three-point shots.
But the Wizards stayed close during the third quarter and sped to the lead by hustling at both ends. On defense, Howard once cut off a pass to Reggie Miller (21 points). On offense, White spun around Perkins on the left baseline and made a layup.
"Hopefully, this can lead to a string of wins," Howard said. "We're not going to let down [against the 13-25 Hawks]. We're not going to allow that to happen."
Wizards vs. Atlanta Hawks
* Where: Philips Arena.
* When: 7:30 p.m.
* Radio: WTEM-980.
* Records: Wizards 13-28, Hawks 13-25.
* Injuries: Wizards--G Mitch Richmond (fractured right rib), C Calvin Booth (strained right hamstring) are on the injured list. Hawks--F Roshown McLeod (strained groin) is on the injured list.