- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2005

MIAMI — Black cats. Overcast skies. Executive votes of confidence.

To the list of bad omens, add Christian Laettner dunking.

With his two-handed stuff near the end of the Washington Wizards’ 105-86 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Sunday, the 35-year-old Laettner notched his first jam of the season.

That’s 87 games, if you’re counting.

“It was funny when he went up,” Wizards center Etan Thomas said with a laugh. “You could hear his bones cracking. You know, he got one last year with us. He had to ice for two days.”

Less humorously for the Wizards, Laettner’s unexpected throwdown nearly matched Washington’s total bench production in the game, a major reason the Wizards face an 0-1 series deficit.

Miami’s reserves outscored Washington’s 36-5, grabbing more rebounds (15-12) and shooting 54 percent to help the Heat shrug off a spotty effort by center Shaquille O’Neal, who scored 19 points and fouled out in just 26 minutes.

In fact, with six points Laettner outscored the Wizards’ bench all by himself — something that needs to change for Washington to have a chance of evening the series in tonight’s Game 2 at AmericanAirlines Arena.

“Everybody talks about the Big Three,” Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said. “But our guys understand that this is a team game. If you don’t get contributions from our big guys and the bench, you’re not going to get where you want to be.”

On an afternoon that saw Washington guards Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes shoot a combined 14-for-38 and forward Antawn Jamison exit with a sore right knee, the Wizards’ backups were unable to pick up the slack.

Juan Dixon, Washington’s highest-scoring reserve, missed all three of his shots. Fellow guard Anthony Peeler went 0-for-4. Forward Michael Ruffin fouled out. Two of Thomas’ five points came on a last-minute garbage dunk.

The Wizards’ frustration was encapsulated during a third-quarter sequence in which Thomas missed from inside the paint, corralled the rebound and missed again on a one-handed putback.

“We’re going to have to produce a little bit more,” Ruffin said. “We know when we come in that we have to play solid for 48 minutes. They’re a veteran team. We’re not going to rattle them by playing one good quarter.”

By contrast, Miami’s bench helped the Heat turn a two-point halftime lead into an 18-point bulge as center Alonzo Mourning scored on a putback and blocked two shots.

Mourning also stuffed Arenas on a first-half dunk attempt — batting away Arenas’ one-handed jam just above the rim — and added four rebounds. Heat guard Keyon Dooling scored 15 points in 23 minutes, hitting two 3-pointers and finishing 6-for-9.

Dooling’s performance wasn’t particularly surprising. In Miami’s first-round sweep of New Jersey, he shot better than 70 percent, leading a Heat bench that connected on 36 of 61 shots.

During the regular season, six Heat reserves scored more than 10 points in a game at least once.

“Our bench has been big for us and is going to continue to be big for us as we go through this playoff run,” guard Dwyane Wade said after Sunday’s game.

The Wizards’ bench, of course, also has been big in the postseason. Dominated by Chicago’s bench in Games 1 and 2 of the first round, Washington’s reserves bounced back as Thomas scored 20 points in Game 3, Dixon had a career-high 35 in Game 4 and Ruffin’s yeoman effort helped close out a physical Game 6.

The common denominator? All of the Wizards’ best bench performances came at MCI Center — something to be expected, coach Eddie Jordan said.

Though Miami veterans like Mourning and Laettner have years of postseason experience, Washington’s reserves remain relative neophytes.

“This is all new to us,” said Jordan, a former reserve with the Los Angeles Lakers. ” ‘Homecourt advantage’ is a phrase that has been around for a long time. There’s a reason for that. I was a bench guy myself, and it’s easier when you know the crowd loves you.”

Which doesn’t really explain Laettner’s dunk. Still, one thing seems certain home or away: If the Wizards’ bench doesn’t play better, the team again will end up on its back. Looking up at Laettner’s soles.

“Who knew Etan was going to go 8-for-10?” Jordan said. “Who knew Juan would score 35? Our bench has been very effective. Hopefully, they will be again.”

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