- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 18, 2002

ATLANTA At times this season the Washington Wizards have criticized themselves for not putting teams away.

Last night, however, they managed to do just that in a 109-99 victory over the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena. The Wizards raced out to a 19-point lead, nearly lost all of it and then, when it had to be done, hit the decisive shots at the end to pull away.

Two days after matching his career low with two points in a victory over the Toronto Raptors, Michael Jordan led the Wizards (11-13) with his first 30-point effort of the season.

"I don't want anybody to think that I can't score," said a laughing Jordan, who finished 12-for-18 from the floor. "I can score if I want to. But I can go a night where if I score two and we win, I'm happy. Then tonight I got into a great rhythm. So don't ever underestimate my scoring skills. I can still score when I have to."

That was never in question. But if, as Jordan has said, the Wizards are still in search of an identity this season, last night may have gone a long way toward finding it after their stretch of clutch plays helped preserve the victory.

After a charge led by Glenn Robinson (game-high 33 points) whittled the Wizards' lead to 100-95 late in the fourth quarter, Jordan made a breathtaking, running left-handed layup. On Atlanta's next possession, Washington center Brendan Haywood's block resulted in a fast-break dunk for Jerry Stackhouse that restored the lead to 104-95 with 2:16 left.

"That was a key stretch for us late in the game," said Stackhouse, who scored 19 of his 23 points in the first half. "We got down, [Jordan] came in and made a tough runner in the lane. On the next play, Brendan got his hand on the ball when it didn't look like he was going to get it. [Larry Hughes] got it out to me, and we got a dunk. I think that was a backbreaking play."

There probably should not have been a struggle at the end considering the remarkable first half the Wizards had against the Hawks, who lost their fourth in a row.

The Wizards made 65 percent of their field goals in the first half, and their 64 points at intermission easily was their best of the season.

But holding on to a lead has been a problem for the Wizards all season, and last night was no different.

"Man, I swear. We sure don't make them easy," Wizards coach Doug Collins said. "We got off to a great start. It really helped us that Jason Terry got into early foul trouble. But our guys keep hanging in there."

The Wizards, winners of consecutive road games for the first time this season, had a balanced attack. Hughes finished with 20 points and eight rebounds, Haywood had 11 points and eight boards and Tyronn Lue came off the bench for 10 points.

Shareef Abdur-Rahim had 20 points and 10 rebounds and Theo Ratliff finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds for the Hawks.

The significance of this victory to the Wizards cannot be overstated. Unless the fortune of one of these teams changes drastically as the season progresses, they could be fighting it out for one of the final playoff seeds in the Eastern Conference.

"It's good," Jordan said of the road victory, just the team's fourth this season. "We've got teams the last couple games where they're hurting. With Atlanta we were tied for the eighth spot. Not that we should be worrying about that with 58 games to go. But against teams like this we're going to have to distance ourselves. Our focus was good leading up to this game. When you win on the road it brings you a little bit closer that's what I experienced in Chicago. Hopefully that's going to make us a little bit better team."

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