Bucks 85, Wizards 82

Reprinted from yesterday's editions

It took a while, but last night's game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards finally took on the playoff-type importance both teams knew was at stake before tip-off.

The problem for Washington was that it waited a little longer than Milwaukee to comprehend the importance of the game and, despite a thrilling fourth quarter comeback, the Wizards lost, 85-82, at sold-out MCI Center.

"I'm sure this will come back to haunt us eventually," said Wizards forward Christian Laettner, who finished with 19 points and eight rebounds. "This will haunt us."

The Wizards might not feel the full impact of the loss until April 17, the day after their regular season ends and they are bound for the NBA draft lottery and the Bucks are playing in the postseason. The teams entered the game with identical records and tied for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot.

With the victory, Milwaukee (31-31) claimed the head-to-head tiebreaker, winning two of three meetings this season, which would be the first means of deciding who advances to the playoffs if the Bucks and Wizards finish with identical records.

"It doesn't sit well," said Wizards guard Michael Jordan, who had game highs in points (27) and rebounds (nine). "This is a crucial time of the season. Five months into the season you should not be making the same mistakes you made the first month of the season. At some point and time you've got to progress, and we progress and regress in the same week."

It was the Wizards' third loss in four games. Washington (30-32) fell a game back of the Bucks in the East, leaving it very much alive for a playoff berth, statistically. However, with just seven of their final 20 games at home -- the Wizards have just nine road wins -- Washington is going to be fighting an uphill battle to get to the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

Coach Doug Collins said he tried to minimize the importance of the game because the Wizards have not responded well to pressure. But with time running out, every game from here is pressure packed.

"It was a big game but I sure tried to downplay the game," Collins said. "I did not try to add any pressure to our guys in any way."

Washington, which never led, showed no semblance of urgency over the first 31/2 quarters, allowing the Bucks to score inside with uncanny ease while playing stagnant, self-absorbed offense. The Wizards had just 59 points through three periods and trailed by 16 going into the fourth. Collins and several players said they were trying too hard to make things work. As a result, they rushed and faltered.

Then the switch flipped. Jordan scored eight points in the period, including two free throws with 20 seconds left to pull Washington to 83-82. Milwaukee's Sam Cassell (24 points) answered with two free throws to put the Bucks up by three with 18 seconds left.

Then, on Washington's final possession, Laettner wisely passed up a three-pointer when the defense came at him and got the ball to guard Larry Hughes, who passed up an open shot.

Laettner "up-faked and kicked it down to me and I just was thinking about too many things -- getting behind the line, the clock," Hughes (10 points, eight assists) explained. "When I caught it I didn't feel [right]. I thought maybe one pass . . . it would be a cleaner shot. But the pass wasn't even clean to get a good look."

The ball ended up with Jordan, who forced a shot with one second left that was partially blocked by Gary Payton.

"Once we calmed down we did okay but we could never get over the hump," Laettner said. "We were close and we couldn't get a big stop. We were there and we had opportunities, but you have to give it to the Bucks. They made their shots and got the stops when they needed it."

Wizards small forward Jerry Stackhouse had 15 points, but just one in the fourth quarter. Forward Kwame Brown had a big fourth quarter, grabbing five rebounds and scoring all five of his points. Milwaukee small forward Desmond Mason had just 11 points, but his fallaway three-pointer with 1:44 left took the steam out of Washington's biggest surge and swung things back in Milwaukee's favor.

Jerry Stackhouse (4) rises up and fouls Bucks' Michael Redd on layup attempt. Stackhouse scored only 1 of 14 points in fourth quarter of home loss.