Wizards 101, Bulls 98

For a half, it looked as if the rest of the Washington Wizards had the same bug that forced an energy-sapped, uncomfortable Michael Jordan home from the morning shoot-around.

Then, with Jordan leading the charge, the Wizards broke through the lethargy with a monstrous third quarter and used that surge to fend off the feisty Chicago Bulls, 101-98, last night at sold-out MCI Center.

"Michael is the barometer of our team," Wizards Coach Doug Collins said. "He came out sort of sluggish and our whole team was sluggish. Instead of picking him up, we played a very sluggish first half. Michael came out in the third quarter, gave us the nice little spurt and it livened us up.

"Then we had the nice finish. We got the stops we needed and we made the big shots. These are the games that slipped away from us early in the season. Now we're finding ways to capture them."

The tale of two halves started with Washington allowing a season-high 59 first-half points, then ripping off 36 third-quarter points to put it in position to ensure a victory that lifted the team to 18-17 -- the first time it has been over .500 since Nov. 17, when it was 6-5.

The Wizards have won a season-high five straight games and are steadily positioning themselves to move up from their current eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff position.

The Bulls did not go quietly, though, as they halted Washington's momentum in the fourth quarter and pulled to 95-94 on Jamal Crawford's driving layup with 35 seconds left. Guard Larry Hughes, who led the Wizards with 22 points, countered with a floating baseline runner to extend the Wizards' lead to three with 18 seconds left.

"I didn't want to take a jump shot," said Hughes, one of six Wizards players to score in double figures. "I wanted to get close to the basket. [Charles Oakley] cleared the way for me and I was able to put it in."

Jalen Rose, who drew a questionable blocking foul on Christian Laettner with 16 seconds remaining, missed the first of two free throws, leaving the Wizards ahead 97-95. Chicago quickly fouled Jerry Stackhouse (10 points), who had missed his two previous free throws but redeemed an awful shooting night from the field (2 of 10) by making those two foul shots to give Washington a four-point advantage.

Laettner (18 points, season-high 11 rebounds) then closed things out with two free throws. He was clutch down the stretch, making all three of his fourth-quarter field goals after the Bulls pulled within one.

"All my teammates and coaches are always barking for me to shoot the ball more," Laettner said. "In the fourth quarter people are going to collapse on Jordan and Stackhouse even more, and if I step away from the bucket and shoot my 18-foot jumper, it's wide open. There was no reason for me not to shoot tonight. I was feeling good out there."

Washington would not have been in position to win had it not been for its tide-changing third period, when Jordan, who complained of a sore throat and light-headedness before being administered antibiotics and sent home at the morning shoot-around, shook the Wizards out of their first-half slumber.

He scored all eight points in an 8-2 run to start the third quarter. Then Hughes got into the fray, sparking a defensive push that led to an 8-4 run that he capped with a dunk, making it 67-64. The Wizards, who outscored the Bulls 36-14 in the third -- a season high for points in a quarter for Washington -- built the lead to 84-73 going into the fourth.

"We kind of walked through the first half," said Jordan (14 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists). "When you're feeling bad you try to figure out what you can get by with. In the first half I was trying to feel things out. I didn't really have the energy. I got into foul trouble early and that kind of makes you tentative.

"In the third quarter I threw it out there and I was done. I was able to get some people involved and make some tough shots, but we had no energy and I kind of picked that up in the third quarter."

Jordan said he has been battling a virus for days and won't attend practice today.

Washington got a boost from forwards Kwame Brown and Etan Thomas in the first half, as the tandem combined for 27 points and seven rebounds. Neither scored in the second half and Collins went with his veterans again down the stretch.

Donyell Marshall led the Bulls with 24 points. Eddy Curry and Crawford added 15 each. Bulls center Tyson Chandler had six points and six rebounds.

Wizards Notes: Wizards rookie guard Juan Dixon (sprained left elbow) could be activated early next week if he plays well in the next few practices. . . .

Dixon's college teammate, Bulls rookie forward Lonny Baxter, got a big ovation when he checked into the game with 1:11 left in the first half.

Larry Hughes, who led the Wizards with 22 points, floats along the baseline for a key basket with 18 seconds left at MCI Center.Kwame Brown, who had all 16 of his points in first half, drives lane between Chicago's Marcus Fizer, left, and Donyell Marshall (24 points).