Wizards 103, Bobcats 96

Holding a nine-point lead with less than three minutes left, the squad in the home whites coughed it up, made careless mistakes, nearly drove its coach insane and looked very much like a team playing its inaugural game in the NBA.

Only, this wasn't the expansion Charlotte Bobcats struggling to win Thursday night in the Charlotte Coliseum. It was the Washington Wizards, who had to overcome themselves before they pulled out a 103-96 win against the energetic newcomers in the bright orange uniforms.

"When do we ever put anybody away?" Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan asked after watching his team commit three turnovers on three consecutive possessions in the final minutes. "But we're growing and we're a whole lot better than we were last year. I see a lot of improvement. There is a lot more to be had, but I'm going to let my guys learn on the run."

The Wizards have now spoiled the debut of the FedEx Forum in Memphis and the return of the NBA to Charlotte on consecutive nights, giving the franchise its first 2-0 start in 10 years. It also is the first time the franchise has opened the season with two road wins since the Washington Bullets opened with wins at Atlanta and Cleveland in 1985.

"It feels good to win," said Larry Hughes, who scored 14 points in his return from a one-game suspension for fighting. "I think with this team, we'll break a lot of things that's been going on the past 10 years. That's just the first one."

Charlotte native Antawn Jamison led the Wizards with 24 points, Gilbert Arenas had 19 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds and 7 turnovers in his return from a one-game suspension for a year-old gun charge, and Jarvis Hayes had 17 points and six rebounds.

But the Wizards probably wouldn't have escaped Charlotte with a win if not for Juan Dixon, a player the Bobcats passed on in the expansion draft. Dixon scored 13 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter and added five assists and five rebounds in just 20 minutes.

"That's his life," Jordan said. "What position is he? He's too small for a two-guard, he doesn't have the instincts to play point, but he's doing both roles terrific. He's very valuable to us right now."

On consecutive possessions in the fourth, Jordan attempted to call timeout but Dixon didn't appear to realize it and Jordan eventually didn't care after he nailed three-pointers to give the Wizards an 85-83 lead. "I just knew something good was going to happen," Jordan said.

Bobcats veteran guard Steve Smith tied the game at 85 with a layup shortly thereafter, but the Wizards pulled away with a 9-0 run. They led 96-87 with 2 minutes 57 seconds left after Jarvis Hayes and Dixon did their best impersonation of Donovan McNabb to Terrell Owens. Hayes launched a 60-foot out-of-bounds pass to Dixon, who laid the ball in and ended his flurry.

"I'm having fun," said Dixon, who is averaging 21.5 points after two games. "I played with a little chip on my shoulder, showing people that I can play on this level."

After Dixon's layup, the Wizards found every opportunity to keep the Bobcats in the game. They had a shot clock violation, then forward Michael Ruffin attempted to dribble and had it stolen, and Hayes was called for a five-second violation trying to make an inbounds pass.

But they were fortunate to be playing the upstart Bobcats, who could nothing with the opportunities. After the Bobcats got within 96-90, reserve forward Tamar Slay missed two free throws, Gerald Wallace threw the ball out of bounds and Emeka Okafor (team-high 19 points and 10 rebounds) missed a short hook over Ruffin. Arenas finally settled his teammates and hit four free throws down the stretch.

"Everybody thinks, since it's an expansion team, you should blow them out -- nah," Arenas said. "If you play hard and you're hitting baskets, you're going to stay in any game."

The Bobcats scored their first basket 22 seconds into the first quarter, when Primoz Brezec caught a pass from Brevin Knight and swooped around Jamison for a layup.

The Charlotte Bobcats, NBA's newest franchise, begin play with an opening tip contested by Wizards' Michael Ruffin, foreground, and Primoz Brezec. Washington struggled, but beat expansion team.