For the Washington Wizards to be a playoff team and that is what they aspire to be there are going to be some nights when even Michael Jordan needs some help.
Sure, Jordan led the way with 28 points, eight assists and four rebounds as the Wizards eased past the horrid Atlanta Hawks 97-90 at sold-out (20,674) MCI Center, but that’s nothing compared with his recent play. Jordan has been on a torrid pace over the last seven games, averaging more than 32 points.
Last night’s game was the Wizards’ second in two nights, and the first was a thriller in Cleveland that required a miracle jumper from Jordan for the win. Besides that grueling schedule, the Wizards last night were without starting center Jahidi White, who was suspended for his involvement in an altercation with Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. And once again they were without Hubert Davis, still out with the flu.
So they needed a big night from some guys who are usually nothing more than window dressing around Jordan, and they responded.
Courtney Alexander, an enigma for most of the season, scored 14 points on 7-for-9 shooting and handed out a season-high five assists. Backup center Etan Thomas helped fill White’s void with perhaps his best effort as a pro, finishing with career highs in points (nine) and rebounds (10).
The Wizards protected the ball and committed a season-low five turnovers resulting in six points. Meanwhile, they harassed the Hawks into 19 turnovers that were converted into 27 points.
It was a time for the second-tier players to show what they are capable of doing, and Wizards coach Doug Collins was satisfied with the results.
“We are a synergistic team,” Collins said. “We are the sum of our parts. For us to be good, everybody’s got to give a little piece of themselves so it all fits together so that we can be a team. And when we miss pieces, that means other guys have to step up and fill in.”
Said Jordan: “We needed them tonight, and we’re going to continue to need them as we move further into the season,”
It was an especially good night for Thomas. Last year he had season-ending toe surgery, hence his reclassification as a rookie. But he has been little used this season, and at times he has vented his frustrations. But he knew that last night with White forced to watch the game on television was a chance for him to make a contribution.
“The main thing is to try to stay ready,” said Thomas, who played a career-high 24 minutes. “You never know. Tonight all of a sudden I played a lot of minutes. If I wasn’t working hard in practice, I wouldn’t be ready, because I haven’t played in a long time.”
The game also marked the first career start of rookie center Brendan Haywood. Haywood played 24 minutes and made both of his field goals, finishing with five points, four rebounds and three blocked shots.
The Hawks (14-32) were led by Shareef Abdur-Rahim’s 25 points and eight rebounds. Center Nazr Mohammed added 15 points and 13 rebounds.
The victory moved the Wizards two games above .500 at 23-21, and the outcome never seemed in doubt not even when Abdur-Rahim closed the Hawks’ deficit to 89-88 with a clutch shot in the lane in the final two minutes.
Moments later, Tyrone Nesby sank a pair of free throws. Following an Atlanta turnover, Chris Whitney raised the lead to 93-88 with a 3-pointer that forced the Hawks to call a timeout with 1:07 left.
When they did get the ball back, the Hawks wasted their possession. Looking at a two-possession game, they frittered away all but six seconds from the 24-second clock and finally called another timeout with 15.2 seconds left.
On the inbounds pass, Nesby tipped the ball away from Abdur-Rahim, Richard Hamilton hit a pair of free throws and the Hawks were done.
A night after the game-winning bucket against the Cavaliers, Jordan didn’t have any plays anywhere near as dramatic. However, he did electrify the house when he recovered from a missed shot at one end to swat away 6-foot-9 DeMarr Johnson’s layup attempt near the end of the first half.
Washington led 35-21 early in the second quarter and 54-44 at halftime. When Atlanta made a 19-11 run at the start of the third to pull them within 6563, the Wizards closed out the quarter on an 11-2 run that restored their lead to 76-65 heading into the fourth.
Although the schedule says the Hawks have 42 games remaining, they seem to have mailed it in. In all likelihood coach Lon Kruger will be walking the unemployment line by May, perhaps sooner.
The Hawks have lost 12 of their last 13, and they were particularly wretched in the five games before last night, losing by an average of 21 points.