- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A few months ago, it was hard to imagine the Washington Wizards backing into the playoffs and extending their losing streak to a season-high five games.

But that’s exactly what happened last night as the Wizards blew a five-point lead in the final 1:26 in a 96-92 loss to the New Jersey Nets. However, Washington clinched a third consecutive playoff berth when the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Indiana Pacers.

“Hopefully, now that we’re in the postseason, guys feel like there has been a little bit of a weight lifted of their shoulders,” Wizards guard Antonio Daniels said. “We can go out and relax and just play, be who we are individually and collectively as a team as a team.”

The Wizards (39-38), who won 21 out of 28 games at one point this season, have lost 21 of their last 33. Still, they are just 2 games out of first place in the Southeast Division, and they face the first-place Miami Heat tonight.

The Wizards are trying to win games without injured All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, but they can’t close out games.

Antawn Jamison, Washington’s current go-to player, had 26 points and 11 rebounds. Reserve Darius Songaila scored a season-high 19 points, and Daniels had 16 points, seven rebounds and six assists.

The game got away from the Wizards for good when, after a timeout with 30 seconds left and Washington trailing 92-91, DeShawn Stevenson was isolated at the top of the key against Jason Kidd. But Stevenson’s drive resulted in an errant air ball.

With 11.1 seconds left at the other end, Stevenson fouled New Jersey’s Vince Carter (31 points, six assists). Carter hit both free throws for a 94-91 lead. Carter, who was 8-for-8 from the line in the fourth quarter, hit two more free throws for the final margin and ensured the Nets a sweep of the Wizards.

Carter wasn’t the only Nets player to have a big game. Fellow forward Richard Jefferson scored a season-high 35 points on 13-for-19 shooting.

Kidd, who along with Carter had a triple-double when the Nets defeated the Wizards on Saturday in overtime, finished with four points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists.

Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, who has led the team to the playoffs in three of his four seasons as coach, was both reserved and reflective after the loss.

“I always said in December and January when we were going pretty good that I felt like I was walking on the edge of cliff about to fall off. I’ve been feeling that way a whole lot lately,” Jordan said. “It’s a sensitive, fragile season. The good news is we’re going to get some playoffs games here at home, and that’s what counts first.”

Asked whether he could have envisioned the Wizards’ regular season winding down the way it was, Daniels said no.

“But I also wouldn’t think we’d be playing at this time of the year without Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, but that’s basketball,” Daniels said. “You kind of take it as it comes. You move on, and you grow from that. As bad as that is, like they say, that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and we’re getting better and stronger.”