Who’s afraid of the Big Bad West?
Not the Washington Wizards.
The Wizards closed the first half of the season last night with a resounding 108-101 victory before 20,674 at MCI Center over a Sacramento team that will head into the All-Star break with the best record in the league.
The Wizards (26-21) laid a complete and absolute beating on a team likely to contend for the Western Conference title, and the game was not as close as the score indicated. The Wizards led by 19 points in the third quarter.
The victory was the Wizards’ fifth in row and seventh in their last eight. And it probably sent the Kings (37-12) home wondering what they have to do to be as dominant on the road as they are at home. Sacramento is 25-1 at home but a pedestrian 12-11 on enemy courts.
As the Wizards head into the All-Star break, they are five games over .500 at that point for the first time since 1979. That was also the last time the Wizards went to the NBA Finals.
“It’s a great win going into the break,” said Michael Jordan, who scored 25 points. “In some ways, we don’t want to go into the break because we’ve got a great rhythm. But there are a lot of tired bodies out there.”
It didn’t look like it; in fact, the tired bodies appeared to belong to the Kings. This was especially so in the third quarter, when the Wizards outscored Sacramento 34-24. In the final 7:29 of the period, Washington had a 26-12 edge.
This prompted Wizards coach Doug Collins to state the team’s plans for the second half of the season, which begins Tuesday against the Lakers at Staples Center.
“We want to make the playoffs,” Collins said. “I said that when we started, I said that when we were 2-9 and I’ll say that right now, today. We want these people to come in [to MCI Center] after April 16th and watch a game.”
Richard Hamilton appears to be rounding into form after missing 17 games with a partially torn right groin. In his fifth game back, Hamilton made 15 of 27 shots and finished with a game-high 33 points.
But perhaps no one was any better than Jordan’s choice for team MVP at the midway point: power forward Popeye Jones. Jones, who picked up his fourth foul with more than seven minutes left in the third quarter, was the best power forward on the court. And this included Sacramento’s Chris Webber, who was recovering from the flu. Jones, who played the entire second half, finished with a season-high 18 points, 15 rebounds and drum roll, please his first dunk of the season.
“It just came off the rim perfect, and I was able to put it back in,” Jones said.
Jones did not joke about the road that lies ahead for the Wizards. He knows that when the break is over, the Lakers will be waiting. And on that road trip, the Wizards will face the Kings again at very hostile Arco Arena.
“That’s going to be a tough game [against the Lakers], and we’re looking at that,” Jones said. “But we’ll enjoy this for now. The first half has been very, very exciting. There are a lot of surprised people out there.”
Count Webber among them. He didn’t like losing to his old team, which foolishly dealt him for Mitch Richmond. But he still likes the Kings’ standing in the league.
“It’s sad, but this game is probably bigger to them than us,” Webber said. “We’ve got to play them again, and then there’s another half a season. This is not the way you want to end a first half, but we’re still sitting in first place and we feel good.”
The Wizards extended their winning streak with Chris Whitney adding 15 points and eight assists. They also did it shorthanded (center Jahidi White missed the game with a stomach virus), meaning more minutes went to Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas. Haywood, who started, scored just two points but blocked two shots and grabbed 11 rebounds. And Thomas, growing more comfortable by the game, finished with nine points and eight rebounds.
“You never know when you work hard,” Jordan said. “We were one man down with Jahidi, and our young kids were thrown to the dogs. They had some experiences out there where they didn’t do well, but then they had some where they did do well.”