- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 3, 2001

WIZARDS 115, WOLVES 108

It isn't often that the Washington Wizards get all the breaks, but when it happens they'll take them.

Last night, in front of what was easily their most involved and interested audience in some time, the Wizards played better defense, took better shots and hit key free throws in pressure situations in a 115-108 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves in front of 11,712 at MCI Center. Felipe Lopez scored a career-high 26 points as the Wizards (7-25) made 58 percent of their shots.

The victory gave the Wizards again playing without point guard Rod Strickland their first back-to-back wins since they defeated the Celtics in Boston on March 31 and New Jersey at home on April 4, 2000 a stretch of 39 games. For the second time in two games the Wizards set a season high for points. And with a game tomorrow against the Bulls in Chicago, the Wizards have a shot at putting together a three-game winning streak, something they haven't had since March.

"I thought the guys really, really gave a good effort," Wizards coach Leonard Hamilton said. "They had an extremely high level of concentration in executing the offense and the defense. It makes you feel good about these guys because they have not backed up at all. They are still extremely determined that we are going to turn our season around, and I am so happy for them."

That they beat the Timberwolves (18-15) again should come as no surprise because the Wizards seem to own them. Washington has won nine of the last 11 meetings between the teams, and Minnesota hasn't beaten the Wizards on the road since Dec. 17, 1994, at the USAir Arena.

Strickland, suffering from sore hamstrings, sat behind the bench in street clothes and missed his third game in a row. The Wizards were also without starting center Jahidi White and starting shooting guard Mitch Richmond. Strickland was scheduled to have a second opinion about his hamstrings. But according to Wizards management, neither Strickland nor his agent, David Falk, had a diagnosis available for the team yesterday.

"We haven't heard about any results from Rod's doctors as of yet," Wizards general manager Wes Unseld said. "I don't know who the doctor is. It was one that was arranged by Rod and his people."

The Strickland saga didn't have any effect on his replacement, Chris Whitney. Whitney scored 14 points and handed out a season-high 13 assists, one shy of his all-time best. Juwan Howard, who scored just six points in the last meeting between the teams, finished with 22 points, and center Calvin Booth had his best game in the NBA, finishing with eight points, 10 rebounds and a career-high five blocks. The team also got good play from reserve forwards Michael Smith (nine points) and Obinna Ekezie (five points).

Kevin Garnett led Minnesota with 31 points. Timberwolves reserve forward LaPhonso Ellis went for 21 points and 10 rebounds.

The Wizards hit 14 free throws in a row in the fourth quarter to hold the Timberwolves at bay, and for the game they were 34-for-40 from the free throw line.

Hamilton did not want to become overly excited about the team's second win in a row, but he hinted that the Wizards have had a more effective look in recent outings with Whitney on the court.

"We have always known that Chris is very capable," Hamilton said. "He hit some big shots, but more than anything else he gave us tremendous leadership on the floor."

Said Whitney: "It's a lot of things. It's chemistry. We're getting a lot of things in the open court. Right now, confidence is the biggest thing."

For the first time this season, the word chemistry seemed to flow from the mouth of every player in the Wizards' locker room after the game, and it was soon followed by a comment about the play of Whitney, who had eight assists in the first half.

Lopez was the biggest recipient of Whitney's generosity. He slashed to the basket and hit midrange jumpers most of them over Wally Szczerbiak for 17 points in the first half.

No player on the court was hotter at the start than Garnett, who finished with 21 first-half points.

With Garnett and Lopez engaged in a shooting contest, the teams arrived at the halfway mark tied at 59-59.

Washington, which scored its previous season-high of 110 points in its win over Detroit on New Year's Eve, used an 11-4 run midway through the fourth quarter to take a 96-87 lead on Whitney's running jumper with 6:19 left in the game. From this point on the closest the Timberwolves would draw was 109-105 with 24.7 left in the fourth quarter.

But the Wizards staved off the Timberwolves at the free throw line.


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