- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2002

PHOENIX With games scheduled against the NBA defending champions and the team with the best record in the league, the Washington Wizards set out on a three-game West Coast jaunt last week hoping to win at least one game.
Mission accomplished.
With Michael Jordan who turns 39 today hitting a game-winning shot in Friday night's 97-96 victory over the Phoenix Suns, the Wizards (27-23) came home with a measure of self-respect after being punished by both the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings. And if they hadn't blown a 20-point second-quarter lead against the Lakers, Washington would have been 2-1 on the trip.
"It's a huge win," Wizards coach Doug Collins said of the Phoenix game. "We went into L.A. and had things rolling, and then we got blitzed. We went into Sacramento and had the tempo and a pretty good situation that we let get away from us and wound up getting blown out.
"[Friday night] it looked like we were going to let another one get away from us, and we found a way to win. Now guys can go home and feel great about the fact that we're four games above .500 and we're right in the thick of the playoffs. These are the kind of games you have to win if you want to make the playoffs."
In blowing the big lead against the Lakers, who were without injured Shaquille O'Neal, Washington was manhandled. The Lakers still managed to push the Wizards around, carving a 44-37 rebounding advantage. The Lakers stepped up the physicality of their game, and the Wizards couldn't respond. This led to the Lakers outscoring them 68-46 in the second half.
Two days later, after allowing Kobe Bryant his third career triple-double (23 points, a career-high 15 assists and 11 rebounds), the Wizards almost did the same in Sacramento. Former Wizard Chris Webber came up one assist shy of a triple-double as the Kings won their 27th home game of the season against just one loss.
But Phoenix is a significant cut below the Lakers and the Kings, and it showed. The Suns are an embattled bunch right now. Stephon Marbury, their best player, recently pleaded innocent to a drunken driving charge. And Penny Hardaway, once a star alongside O'Neal when the two played together in Orlando, has fallen out of favor with coach Scott Skiles and did not play in the fourth quarter.
Skiles has been critical of forward Shawn Marion, once considered to be the steal of the same draft that produced Richard Hamilton, who is quietly approaching stardom in Jordan's shadow with the Wizards.
Friday night's victory was the Wizards' first in Phoenix since Feb. 27, 1988, when they defeated the Suns 116-106, and was their first ever at America West Arena (1-9). The victory also gave the Wizards their first season sweep of the Suns since the 1987-88 season.
"We'd been on the road for the last three games, and we had to get away with something. I think we came in with a lot of energy and just gutted out a win," said Jordan.
After Jordan capped a relatively average game by his standards with the 15-foot game-winner over Marion that swished home with just two-tenths of a second to play, Skiles praised Jordan while seemingly taking a shot at his own players.
"I think some people inherently know what it takes, and most people don't have a clue and don't want to know because it requires a lot and most people don't want to give a lot," Skiles said. "The older I get, the more I realize that most people want to eke by and really don't have a lot of competitive fire. The rare professional sports people like [Jordan] that do are successful."
But Jordan got some significant help against the Suns as Hamilton led the Wizards with 29 points. This came after Bryant had held him to just five points in the final three quarters against the Lakers and after a relatively ineffective outing against the Kings.
But the biggest surprise for the Wizards was the energetic play of reserve forward Tyrone Nesby. Nesby's double-double included 10 rebounds and a season-high 18 points. It was Nesby's putback of Jordan's missed jumper that tied the game 95-95 in the final 20 seconds.
A free agent this summer, Nesby has joined Tyronn Lue and Brendan Haywood as one of the top three players off the bench this season.
"He's made us a different team," Collins said. "He's our most athletic player, and he's our only true small forward coming off the bench. He's the guy we have to go with when teams go big at small forward. He's in great shape, he's playing well and he's having fun."

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