Wizards 87, Magic 79

The last time the Washington Wizards played a meaningful game at MCI Center, they were getting swept out of the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs by the Miami Heat.

Last night, a sellout crowd of 20,137 witnessed a new-look Wizards team that is far from playoff ready but still good enough to improve to 3-0 with an 87-79 victory over the winless Orlando Magic.

The victory gave Washington its first 3-0 start since the 1978-79 season, which also was the last time the franchise appeared in the NBA Finals.

While it is far too early to get a read on how far this Wizards squad will go, Coach Eddie Jordan's team has shown a knack for scratching and clawing its way through spurts of sloppiness.

Just as they did in pulling out close wins on the road over the Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks, the Wizards held an opponent below 40 percent shooting and made the plays they needed to make in the fourth quarter.

"We have been up and down at times as far as execution and rebounding through three games, yet when it comes down to winning time, we've found a way to get it done," Jordan said.

Guard Gilbert Arenas led the way with 30 points on 11-of-23 shooting while forward Antawn Jamison finished with 23 points and 13 rebounds. However, for the third straight game, it was defense that got it done for Washington.

Orlando shot just 31.3 percent and went particularly cold when it counted, missing 16 of 20 shots (including its first nine) in the fourth quarter.

The Wizards once again yielded too many offensive rebounds for Jordan's liking (21) and struggled from the three-point line (they made 5 of 20, including 5 of 6 in the fourth quarter).

Still, Washington overcame the absence of forward Caron Butler, who missed his second straight game with a thigh bruise, and also made due without starting guard Antonio Daniels, who left the game in the third quarter after rolling his left ankle on the foot of former Maryland star Steve Francis.

With Daniels and Butler out, it was another offseason acquisition, veteran guard Chucky Atkins, who came up with a big play.

After center Brendan Haywood sparked a fast break by blocking a layup attempt by Jameer Nelson, Atkins made the Magic pay on the other end when he pulled up and swished a three-pointer. The shot gave Washington a 72-66 lead at the 7:45 mark.

It was the largest lead of the night for the Wizards and one they would not entirely squander even though Orlando was able to get within 75-74 on a DeShawn Stevenson fast-break layup and 81-79 on a three-pointer by Francis.

Atkins helped clinch the win with a basket that came courtesy of a goaltending call on Orlando's Dwight Howard and by making one of two free throws with 12 seconds remaining.

"The key to all of this has been our defense," said Haywood, who had his third straight strong performance, finishing with 7 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocks in 30 minutes. "When you hold a team below 40 percent shooting, you're giving yourself a chance to win even if you're not making shots yourself.

"Everyone has committed themselves to staying in front of their man and to rotating and helping each other out. We even have Gilbert Arenas playing defense this year."

The end result of all of that defense might be a team that is not as aesthetically pleasing to fans as last season's squad but one that may have a better chance of winning when it really counts: during the playoffs.

"Last year we did all the up and down the court stuff with no defense," said Jamison, who came up with 10 of his 13 rebounds on the defensive end while chipping in with two blocks. "It was fun to watch but we let some games get away. If we can play 70, 80 games like this and improve on our rebounding, we're going to be okay."

Wizards Note: Daniels underwent an X-ray on his injured left ankle but the results were negative. Jordan said that Daniels will be further evaluated tomorrow when the team meets to prepare for Wednesday's home game against the Los Angeles Clippers. Daniels missed a preseason game against the Memphis Grizzlies after rolling the same ankle in practice.

Box score, E15

Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas, above, is out in front with 30 points. Antawn Jamison added 23 points. Gilbert Arenas (11-of-23 shooting) goes in for a slam in the first half. "The key to all of this has been our defense," the Wizards' Brendan Haywood said.