- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

The abysmal first half could be explained by an early afternoon start coupled with the beginning of daylight-savings time. The fourth quarter had no such built-in excuse.

The Washington Wizards blew an eight-point lead in the final six minutes of a 79-76 loss yesterday to Indiana before a sell-out crowd at MCI Center. The Pacers captured an important game in their playoff run while temporarily denying the Wizards their first winning season in seven campaigns.

“They just lulled us and just waited for the last two minutes of the game,” said Washington guard Gilbert Arenas, who saw his team’s four-game winning streak end. “The way they beat us is the same way they beat San Antonio and Detroit and Miami. They just slowed the ball up and played their game.”

The Wizards scored a season-low 29 points in the first half after an 11-point first quarter. The Pacers didn’t fare any better, and the game was tied at intermission.

Washington’s offense finally came to life in the third quarter, and the Wizards took a 13-point lead. However, a dismal fourth quarter doomed the Wizards as Indiana outscored Washington 33-17.

Washington had a chance to tie, but Damone Brown missed an open 28-footer at the buzzer. Brown — who is on his second 10-day contract — was a curious choice to take the final shot following Arenas’ inbounds pass. Brown had made four of nine 3-pointers in his previous nine games with the Wizards.

“It was either an opportunity for Juan [Dixon] off the flair or Gil to [get a] hand back for a 3 or Damone to shoot a 3,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “We had three options.”

The Wizards (41-31) dropped into a tie with Chicago for the Eastern Conference’s fourth playoff position, which includes homecourt advantage in the first round. The Bulls have won nine straight. Indiana (38-34) stayed tied for the sixth slot because Cleveland beat Dallas.

Point guard Anthony Johnson controlled the pace for Indiana and finished with 15 points and six assists, while teammate Stephen Jackson added 15 points. Washington outscored the Pacers 36-18 in the paint, but Indiana won it on the perimeter.

Arenas led the Wizards with 22 points on 8-for-18 shooting, getting few open looks. The Pacers were able to key on Arenas because Larry Hughes was ineffective — 12 points on 3-for-16 shooting — after he sprained his left elbow Friday night at Orlando.

Hughes favored his left side and was unable to extend the arm.

“It bothered me, but I knew it would,” said Hughes, who nonetheless tied for the team high with eight rebounds and played strong defense. “I was prepared to play through the pain.”

The Wizards shook off their horrific start to score 30 points in the third quarter. They broke a 35-35 tie with a 24-11 run to take a 59-46 lead with 1:32 left in the period. However, the Pacers answered with 10 straight. Eddie Gill’s 3-pointer cut the deficit to three with 11:22 left.

The Wizards built a 69-61 advantage with 5:27 left, but Indiana countered with 12 straight, closing with 3-pointers from Johnson, James Jones and Reggie Miller.

The Pacers’ rally came with Kwame Brown on the bench. Brown had a strong first half with eight points and seven rebounds but did not return to the game until just 33 seconds remained.

“[The Pacers] went small, so I guess Coach made the decision to go small also,” Brown said.

Jordan suggested Brown’s defense was a reason for his limited playing time.

“We still had scorers on the floor, and I wanted to have some solid defense as far as pick-and-roll defense,” Jordan said. “The matchups were such that we had to defend.”

Though the Wizards began a stretch of five games in seven days on a sour note, the good news is that star forward Antawn Jamison, out the last 12 games with tendinitis in his right knee, might return for tomorrow’s home game with Boston.

Washington has 10 games left as it pushes not only for its first playoff berth in eight years but for homecourt advantage in the first round.

“It is going to go down to the wire,” Arenas said. “Nobody said it was easy.”

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