Michael Jordan is on the move.
Jordan netted 41 points against the Phoenix Suns last night his second consecutive game of at least 40 in leading the Washington Wizards to a 112-102 victory at sold-out MCI Center. He had 40 points in a victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night, marking the second time this season he has reached that total in back-to-back games.
The Wizards got up on the Suns early and kept the visitors at bay throughout, maintaining a double-digit lead from before halftime until the final minutes. The Wizards could afford to lean on Jordan, who made 17 of 30 shots from the field and added seven assists. The victory put the Wizards one game over .500 at 21-20.
Jordan continually used the “R word” rhythm when describing his fifth 40-point game of the season. Coach Doug Collins said keeping Jordan moving around the court on offense and making him more difficult to guard is an important factor. The Suns found that out last night.
“My legs are starting to come back, and I’m getting in a great rhythm right now,” Jordan said. “What really opens things up is my jump shot.”
The Wizards were in control throughout, outscoring Phoenix in each of the first three quarters. Jordan led the charge, but Hubert Davis, Tyronn Lue, Tyrone Nesby and Courtney Alexander, playing his most minutes in a month, made solid contributions off the bench.
Collins has preached the need for production from reserves because several players have tired legs and the team is still missing Christian Laettner and Richard Hamilton. Collins used his bench players who have dubbed themselves the “Rat Pack,” according to Nesby without much dropoff last night.
“It was important because we have guys hurt,” said Nesby, who had nine rebounds. “It shows you what we can do.”
The Wizards won their first game this season when allowing 100 or more points.
In the Suns, the Wizards faced an opponent much like themselves a .500 team seeking to stay in the playoff hunt in the more competitive Western Conference that has battled injuries of late. Tom Gugliotta (quadriceps tendinitis) did not play last night. Anfernee Hardaway and Rodney Rogers, like Jordan, have battled tendinitis in their knees.
Before the game, Collins said he was worried about matching up with the quickness of Suns guards Stephon Marbury and Hardaway, but on most occasions, it was Phoenix’s players scrambling to keep up with the Wizards. Marbury scored 25 points and had 10 assists but was harassed into seven turnovers, and Hardaway managed just 10 points, five below his average.
Both teams mainly the reserves put on a less-than-entertaining display in a first half full of turnovers, poor shots and uninspired play. The Wizards were solid defensively (though Phoenix had more than its share of shots that just didn’t fall) and managed to grind it out better than their opponents.
After Jake Tsakalidis’ basket with 10:52 left in the second quarter, the Suns (21-22) went without a field goal for the next 5:26. The only consistent offensive threats were Shawn Marion and Marbury, who had 13 first-half points, and as a result Phoenix scored only 37 points on 32.5 percent shooting from the field.
With neither team displaying any intention of seizing command of the game, Jordan did what he does better than anyone take over the offense and punish defenders in 1-on-1 situations. He did so to the tune of 14 second-quarter points on his way to 20 in the opening half.
Jordan helped extend the Wizards’ lead from 24-20 to 30-23 when he hit three free throws at the 7:23 mark. Two jumpers made it a 44-34 game with 2:11 left before the break.
“The main thing was our defense in the first period,” said Collins, who was concerned because the Suns had erupted in the first halves of the first two games of their three-game road swing.
The Wizards are 4-1 in games in which Jordan has scored at least 40 points.
“We’ve done a much better job of keeping him on the move because teams don’t know where to help,” Collins said.
In his last four games, Jordan is averaging 35 points.
“Does that surprise you?” Jordan responded to a reporter’s question. “That doesn’t surprise me either.”
Recently the Wizards have shown at least for the moment they are not equal to top teams like Minnesota, Milwaukee and San Antonio but are better on most nights than teams like Chicago and Cleveland. Opponents like Phoenix are the ones the Wizards need to beat to stay above .500 and in the hunt for the playoffs.
Last night they did just that.