Pacers 88, Wizards 84
For three quarters, Washington Wizards Coach Doug Collins mixed and matched combinations and lineups, trying to find five players who would play with the sense of urgency the reeling team needed to snap out of a three-game funk that lingered deep into its game last night against Indiana.
Michael Jordan was ready just about whenever called upon, as he pledged over the past few days when he clamored for more playing time. However, few expected rookies Juan Dixon and Jared Jeffries and center Etan Thomas to provide a final push that nearly brought the Wizards back from a 19-point fourth-quarter deficit only to fall short, 88-84.
If only leading scorer Jerry Stackhouse, who made just 2 of 16 field goals, could have joined in. Instead, the Pacers' clutch foul shooting -- and two missed free throws by Jordan -- allowed Indiana to escape with a riveting win last night before a sellout crowd of 20,173 at MCI Center.
The loss was Washington's fourth straight as it dropped to 6-8. However, the exciting finish and the performances by Dixon, Jeffries, Thomas and Jordan left reason for optimism despite the recent failures.
"One thing I've always done in my career is when in doubt, go with your competitors," Collins said. "When you looked out there at the end of the game we had some of our best competitors on the floor and that's why we got back in the game."
Jordan scored a season-high 28 points and matched his season high by playing 34 minutes. However, his two missed foul shots came in the final 37 seconds, shortly after he brought them to 83-80 with an 18-foot jump shot. Reggie Miller (13 points), who played his first game of the season after rehabilitating a sprained ankle, sank two free throws and Ron Mercer made 1 of 2 foul shots to dash Washington's comeback attempt.
"We were so far down," said Jordan, who had three steals. "We fought to get back in the game but we couldn't get over the hump. Our defense got us back in the game. We starting scrambling and started making some shots. We needed that the whole game."
Dixon was the catalyst. Forced into action because of an injury to starting point guard Larry Hughes (strained right wrist) and a poor performance from his replacement, Tyronn Lue, Dixon had six steals and 12 of his season-high 15 points in the fourth quarter to bring Washington back.
The young front court was also a factor. Jeffries contributed six points, seven rebounds and two steals. Center Brendan Haywood had one of his best games of the season, scoring 11 points, blocking three shots and grabbing five rebounds, but Thomas, who had not played in three of the previous five games, earned the key minutes down the stretch. He had six points, five rebounds and two blocks, all in the second half.
"I just got the opportunity," Thomas said. "It would have felt better with a win. They were poised and they pulled it out at the end."
Washington pulled within one twice in the fourth quarter but Miller nailed a three to stretch Indiana's lead the first time and Brad Miller hit two free throws to give Indiana a 79-76 margin with 2 minutes 24 seconds left. The Wizards never got any closer. Shortly after those free throws, Brad Miller hit a deflating 14-footer to stretch the lead to five.
"We can't let effort get lost because we don't take care of the business we need to just simply by concentrating," Collins said of the late failures.
Stackhouse missed all three of his fourth-quarter shots. Lue was 1 of 9 for the game and the starting back court combined for 10 points.
Starting forward Kwame Brown had just two points and two rebounds. Small forward Bryon Russell, whose minutes were trimmed to make room for Jordan's expanded role, had just six points and two rebounds.
Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal had a team-high 26 points and a career-high 21 rebounds.
The Wizards dug most of their hole in the first half, which ended with them trailing 45-32. Washington shot 31 percent in the half, seemingly never managing to get off an easy shot. The Wizards actually trimmed a 13-point, first-quarter deficit to 25-21 early in the second quarter on a three-point shot by Dixon. Yet, just as quickly as the Wizards got themselves back into contention, the Pacers ripped off a 12-4 run to go up 37-25 and they never let their lead slip to single digits the rest of the half.
Wizards Notes: Hughes could be back for Friday's game but he will be watched closely because his injury is to his shooting hand. . . . Forward Christian Laettner needs 16 points to reach 10,000 for his career. He is 30 rebounds away from 5,000 in his career. . . .
Pacers guard Ron Artest changed his number from 15 to 23 before this season in honor of Jordan, whom he grew up admiring. Coincidentally, it was Artest who broke Jordan's ribs in a pickup game in summer 2001, setting back his conditioning for his comeback from a three-year retirement.