- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 12, 2002

The Boston Celtics are a good story, a group of guys playing hard for a low-key coach who is perfectly comfortable being in the background, and the formula works.
But don't be misled. They are this good because they play in the weak Eastern Conference, home to teams like the Washington Wizards, whom they toyed with last night on the way to a 104-99 victory at MCI Center.
While the Celtics are almost a shoe-in for the playoffs, the Wizards pack their bags today for six games in nine days on the West Coast that very well could determine whether the Wizards will make the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Washington will not play at MCI Center again until March 26.
"We've got to find a way to win three or four games or we are going to be out of it," Wizards coach Doug Collins said.
However, if they continue to play the way they have over the last month, only a return of Michael Jordan ahead of schedule and he is not expected to be recovered from knee surgery until after Washington returns home almost two weeks from today could give them hope of being a playoff team.
Right now, they are not. Right now, they are belly-up.
"The excuses have run out and they have gotten old," Courtney Alexander said. "It's almost playoff time and teams are playing harder and harder. I don't know what else to say."
Last night's loss was the Wizards' fourth in a row and their 13th in their last 16 games, dropping their record to 29-34. Despite committing 21 turnovers for the second game in as many days, the Wizards had a chance to win it late. But the momentum of battling back from 12 points down in the third quarter wasn't enough to prevent Paul Pierce's 26-foot 3-pointer with 8.8 seconds to play from putting the game out of reach at 101-96.
"The guys found me and they expect me to deliver," Pierce said. "The shot clock was winding down and we needed a bucket desperately. It was just a big shot that lifted us for the win."
Collins said that the Wizards defended the play perfectly, with Alexander on Pierce. It was, according to Collins, a simple matter of very good players doing what they are supposed to do in those circumstances.
"That was a very well contested shot," Collins said. "The last shot he hit is an all-pro player's shot. Courtney could not have been more in his face on that one."
Without Jordan this season the Wizards are 2-7. Since his Feb. 27 surgery, Washington is just 2-5 in games without its leader.
"We are putting out a whole lot of effort, and we're playing with a whole lot of passion every night," said Richard Hamilton, who led the Wizards with 31 points. "It seems like the ball just doesn't bounce right. It seemed like when MJ was playing the ball always bounced right. We found a way to win every game. We were usually the team hitting the buzzer-beater.
"Now team's are hitting buzzer-beaters against us. A guy hits a shot against us that hits the top of the glass and goes it. Paul hits a 3-pointer with somebody's hand in his face. Those were games that we were winning earlier in the year. Now it seems like we're on the other side of the stick right now."
Pierce was marvelous, finishing with 37 points and making 15 of 23 shots from the floor. When Boston needed him most, Pierce was at his best, pouring in 16 points in the fourth quarter. All this came after he was whistled for a technical foul at the start of the period.
Antoine Walker and Tony Delk, recently acquired in a trade with Phoenix, both added 19 points as Boston (36-27) won for the fifth time in a row. Boston connected on 10 of the 25 3-pointers it launched.
Alexander added 24 points for Washington.
One thing Collins wanted to see the Wizards do was cut down on the number of turnovers they committed against the Celtics. In their loss the night before, the Wizards' sloppiness resulted in 21, the most they've committed since they gave it away 22 times against the Bulls on Jan. 19.
Now the turnover issue is becoming more of problem, something Collins warned against when he decided that the Wizards would have to run more on offense minus Jordan.
"The story of the game was our turnovers," Collins said in a matter-of-fact tone. "You can talk about anything you want to. We have to value the ball. We had no value of the ball in Boston yesterday, and we had no value of the ball today. We can't throw the ball away 21 times and expect to beat them ."
Added Alexander: "Twenty-one turnovers. We can't play that type of basketball. We're not that good."


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