Wizards 89, Nets 86
Michael Jordan made history last night when his two fourth-quarter free throws with 31/2 minutes left made him the first 40-year-old NBA player to score 40 points in a game. But there was too much game and too much drama left for him to end things there.
So, in typical Jordan fashion, the NBA's third-oldest player -- who moments earlier had been inadvertently elbowed in the head and temporarily knocked a little woozy -- blew past New Jersey's Richard Jefferson, 22, and hit a go-ahead, left-handed layup with 34 seconds left.
Those were the last of Jordan's game-high 43 points as the Wizards went on to a captivating 89-86 victory over the Nets at sold-out MCI Center.
The arena erupted after Jordan's decisive basket. But after Jefferson's last-second three-point attempt that could have sent the game to overtime missed, the jubilation was even greater.
Jordan's incredible performance wasn't wasted.
"It didn't dawn on me -- the first 40-year-old to drop 40," said Jordan, whose birthday was Monday. "I read it on the stat sheet and I thought it was a misprint. Either way, we needed this game. I set the tone early that I wanted to come out and win this game. It was a big game for us to get in the playoff race."
The Wizards (26-28) had lost three of four and were slipping precariously close to draft lottery status. They were without third-leading scorer Larry Hughes (sprained right ankle, out three weeks) and leading scorer Jerry Stackhouse (4 of 12, 11 points) struggled for the second straight game since suffering a pulled groin that sidelined him for five games.
By beating the Nets (37-19), who had defeated them six straight times, the Wizards pulled within percentage points of the eighth and final playoff spot behind Orlando.
"I have so much respect for [Jordan]," Jefferson said. "You could just look in his eyes and tell that he had his legs under him and he was ready to go. I knew he wasn't going to let me or this team get the best of him for a fourth time. He's the greatest player to have played and he could do this for three or four more years."
He isn't though, having announced months ago that this is his final season. That fact might be one reason he went so hard last night.
"I told the guys we've got 28 games left and if I'm going to die I'm going to die with no bullets," said Jordan, who also had 10 rebounds -- five in the decisive fourth quarter -- and four steals. "I'm going all out. It's the end of my career and I don't want to see it end in a negative way. I want too see it end in a positive way.
"If [my teammates] can't see that, if they can't see my love for the game then obviously they don't need to be in uniform, they definitely don't need to be on this team."
Jordan let everybody know in the first quarter that he meant business when, with the Wizards trailing, he outran two players, then dove on the floor to corral a ball he knocked loose from Aaron Williams. The crowd went into a frenzy, even though the Wizards failed to convert seconds later.
Wizards forward Christian Laettner, who had 13 points, said that sequence registered.
"You guys should talk about that and put it in the headlines, our coaches should use it as motivation," Laettner said. "That should have reverberated all the way down the line to let everyone see how hard you have to play if you want to be a great player."
Added Wizards Coach Doug Collins: "I said in the timeout, did you see Michael diving for that loose ball? I shouldn't have to say one word to anybody. That's what you have to do to win, especially when you start talking playoffs. Those are the type of plays you have to make and Michael didn't even hesitate."
Washington won by going with a predominantly veteran lineup that threw New Jersey off by playing a heavy dose of zone defense. Jefferson led the Nets with 25 points but point guard Jason Kidd, one of four players the Nets used to try to stop Jordan, made just 2 of 13 shots for 10 points. He had just five assists.
New Jersey led as late at 1 minute 10 seconds left in the game after Williams's seven-foot jump hook, but the Wizards held the Nets scoreless from that point.