- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 8, 2006

As ugly as their recent string of blowout losses has been, if the Washington Wizards had blown their 103-102 victory over the Boston Celtics last night at MCI Center, it would have been even more devastating.

In winning for just the eighth time in 25 games, the Wizards (13-18) almost blew a seven-point lead in the last 30 seconds.

“In the last seconds we made mental errors and they came down and hit big shots,” Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas said. “We’re just happy to get this one because we needed it in the worst kind of way.”

When Caron Butler hit a pair of free throws to put the Wizards up 101-94, it looked as if the game was all but clinched.

But a pair of 3s from Boston’s Paul Pierce and Brian Scalabrine set the table for Eleanor Roosevelt graduate Delonte West to drill a go-ahead 16-footer with 9.7 seconds left.

In that same span, Washington committed a bone-headed turnover on an inbounds play, and Butler — an 88 percent free-throw shooter — missed a pair that allowed West a chance to be a villain in his hometown.

But after a timeout, Arenas, who scored a game-high 31 points and was 17-for-18 from the free throw line, attacked the basket and was fouled by Pierce.

With 3.5 seconds left, Arenas made both free throws for what would be the final margin. Out of a timeout, Boston’s Ricky Davis got off a running shot from just inside midcourt.

“We needed it so badly,” said Arenas, who took the ball out on the Wizards’ last possession. “I knew I was going to get the ball back and get a chance. I felt that I was taking it out and I was going to get it back.”

And when he did and drove to the basket, he said he thought of Butler’s misses — but only for a second.

“Can’t think about it for too long, otherwise it might work against you,” he said. “Our mind-set right now is that we can’t let the Eastern Conference get away from us. It’s time for us to get some wins and get in it. We can’t just talk about it anymore.”

In recent days, any talk of the Wizards in the playoffs for a second consecutive season has dissipated, especially after ugly, back-to-back losses to last-place teams — the Houston Rockets and the New York Knicks.

The Wizards lost their last four games by an average of almost 14 points, so the importance of last night’s victory wasn’t lost on anyone.

“We said this was a playoff game for us,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “We didn’t have the intensity early. I thought we didn’t have our legs, but in the second half we dug deep down.”

Antawn Jamison finished with 24 points and eight assists for Washington, which also got 20 points from Butler. Brendan Haywood also added nine points and 12 rebounds before he fouled out.

For Boston, Davis scored 24 points, while Pierce contributed 23 and West 17.

All the bugaboos that have haunted the Wizards lately were present last night. The Celtics (13-20) shot the ball better than Washington (49 to 43.4 percent), and they also won the rebounding battle (48-37). In fact, the only thing that put the Wizards back in position to win the game was a 37-point effort in the third quarter.

Note — Shooting guard Jared Jeffries missed last night’s game with a scratched left eye. Jeffries, who started the first 30 games of the season, was replaced in the lineup by Antonio Daniels, who finished with five points and a team-high six assists.

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