Kings 105, Wizards 99

For a few minutes there was an exciting semblance of hope. A signal that the Washington Wizards might do just enough during a riveting stretch of the fourth quarter to upset the Sacramento Kings. A sign that winning a critical victory against one of the elite teams in the league in order to keep their fading playoff pulse beating was possible.

The run that brought the Wizards within four with 32 seconds left after trailing by 22 ended up being a cruel tease to the cheering sold-out MCI crowd that had been booing just minutes earlier.

The Wizards simply waited too long to get their act together against the Kings and ended up losing 105-99 last night to fall two games behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Bucks own the head-to-head tie-breaker over the Wizards, meaning Washington needs to finish a game ahead of Milwaukee to get into postseason play. The Bucks defeated the Houston Rockets, 106-99, last night to handle their end of things, a concept the reeling Wizards have failed to grasp.

"The third quarter we came out, they back-doored us, got some easy baskets, eight points real quick it went from [a 13-point deficit] to [21]," said Wizards guard Michael Jordan (17 points). "We were 18, 19 points down and a sense of urgency kicked in."

That it took so long for Washington to recognize that urgency is the recurring theme of its late-season struggles to get into the playoffs.

Washington lost its third straight to fall six games under .500 (34-40) for the first time this season. It boasts the same record it had last season after 74 games. With eight games remaining, the team's focus may shift from making the playoffs to matching last season's win total of 37.

Granted, Washington's loss came at the hands of the NBA team with the third-best record and it ended up being competitive at the end. But its downfall came in pretty much the same fashion that has become commonplace in this crunch-time slide.

The Wizards faded after a strong start, allowed the Kings to make a late run before the first-half buzzer, then came unglued in the third quarter, making the rally in the fourth quarter too taxing to close.

"We thought we were on our heels a little bit in the first half, then we came out [in the third quarter], they hit two backdoors and that put us in a little bit of a hole," said Wizards guard Jerry Stackhouse, who had a team-high 27 points. "We kept fighting but when you put five guys on the floor that can score, pass and put the ball on the floor they're tough to beat."

Down 13 at halftime, the Wizards failed to make up any ground in the third quarter and went into the fourth period down 84-70. They got to 99-94 after Jordan's jump shot with 2 minutes 20 seconds remaining, but a jumper by former Washington forward Chris Webber extended Sacramento's lead to seven.

That gap proved too much to bridge, despite the Wizards pulling to 101-97 on Stackhouse's follow-up layin with 32 seconds remaining. Forward Kwame Brown, who was a big reason Washington made a game of it in the fourth quarter, missed 3 of 4 foul shots in a 30-second span, beginning with 1:07 left, enabling the Kings to close out the game with four free throws.

"I've got to make free throws," said Brown, who had 10 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter. "I guess the Kings thought we were going to roll over. I came out, just tried to hustle. We tried to play the best defense we could. We were able to bring it back in. We were never able to close it."

The talent-rich Kings were led by Webber, who had a game-high 28 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. Three others scored in double figures as Sacramento improved to 54-22.

Sacramento outscored the Wizards 46-30 in the lane, getting 14 of those points in transition and 14 more on second-chance points.

Guard Mike Bibby scored eight of his 17 points in Sacramento's late second-quarter run to swing momentum firmly in the Kings' favor with a 57-44 halftime lead. The 10-2 surge allowed Sacramento to pull away from a briefly resurgent Wizards' team that had cut a 13-point deficit to 47-42.

Wizards guard Tyronn Lue and Sacramento's Bobby Jackson put in some handy work as they battle for control of the ball during the fourth quarter.Michael Jordan looks to make a stop against Kings forward Predrag Stojakovic, who scores two of his 16 points during fourth-quarter action at MCI Center.