- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2002

MINNEAPOLIS The Minnesota Timberwolves have been to the NBA playoffs five times, and each time they have made a quick and ugly exit.

Don't count on that happening this year.

Last night the Washington Wizards were made believers in their second loss to the Timberwolves in less than two weeks. This time they were dispatched 105-101 at Target Center before a franchise-record 20,320.

Sure, Michael Jordan led five Washington players in double figures, totaling a game-high 29 points and pulling down a season-high 14 rebounds. And yes, the first three quarters were every bit as competitive as the ideal NBA game figures to be, with 23 lead changes and just four points separating the teams.

But the Timberwolves (30-10), winners of 11 of their last 12 games and already held in high esteem by the Wizards coaching staff heading into last night's contest, impressed upon the players as well that they are indeed for real.

"This is the best team in the league right now in terms of records," said a tired Hubert Davis after logging 37 minutes and contributing 12 points and five assists. "I think that we played well tonight. But they are very good. They're very long. What we need to do is go home and get a win tomorrow."

The bad news for the rest of the league is that those compliments don't satisfy the Timberwolves, now 20 games above .500. Those early playoff exits have stoked the flames of determination.

"Being respectful, I would say thank you," said Kevin Garnett, who led Minnesota with 23 points and nine assists, when told of the praise the team had received down the hallway. "But at the same time, that's our goal. We want to be the best, not one of the best. From a mental standpoint and from a physical standpoint we go out every day in practice and try to reach that goal. And when we step on the court, we try to funnel that energy over to the game. Right now, we have a steady flow but we cannot get complacent."

Neither can the Wizards. Despite the loss, the Wizards (19-19) are still tied with Orlando for third place in the Atlantic Division. And thanks to the schedule-makers in the NBA, tonight's game at MCI Center against the Philadelphia 76ers (19-21) is crucial.

"It's a big game for us," Wizards coach Doug Collins pointed out. "They're going to be coming in there hungry after losing [to Seattle] and we'll have to be ready for what they bring in."

That would be a good idea because they were not ready for what the Timberwolves had waiting for them in the fourth quarter.

Trailing 95-89 after a Jordan 3-pointer with 5:42 left, Minnesota quickly pushed the lead to 103-91 with 1:52 left, causing an exodus by the fans into the cold Minnesota night.

Considering the Wizards made just seven of 26 shots in the fourth quarter (Jordan was 1-for-11), it very well could have turned into a rout.

"We just couldn't get stops when we had to," Collins said. "Either [Wally] Szczerbiak would hit a shot or [Anthony] Peeler. Or [Radoslav] Nesterovic would step in the lane and hit a shot. Garnett was fabulous. They've got guys who can hurt you in a lot of positions. And when it mattered, we hit a cold spell and they took advantage of it. That's what they do."

Said Jordan: "They collectively played hard defense in the fourth quarter, and we never got a good look in the quarter. In the third quarter, I think we played pretty well. We moved the ball and got guys open. They just made a spurt in the fourth quarter and separated from us."

Chris Whitney scored 16 points for the Wizards, and Popeye Jones, still in the starting lineup despite Christian Laettner's return added 13 points. Tyronn Lue added 12 points off the bench for the Wizards, who shot 43.2 percent from the floor.

Point guard Terrell Brandon, activated form the injured list on Sunday, came of the bench to score 17 points for Minnesota. Szczerbiak added 19 points on 8-for-10 shooting from the floor. Peeler had 14 points off the bench.

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