- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 22, 2003

One of the many mantras concerning the Washington Wizards is that they simply can't sit back and put the burden of winning games on the 40-year-old shoulders of Michael Jordan.

Last night they ignored that advice and won in stunning fashion.

Jordan, who has perhaps more "firsts" attached to his name than any player in the history of basketball, became the first 40-year-old in NBA history to score 40 points in a game, delivering 43 to lead the short-handed Wizards to a breathtaking 89-86 victory over the Eastern Conference defending champion New Jersey Nets.

"Sometimes you've got to lead by example," Jordan said. "Hopefully, when they see someone like me diving for lose balls, [Charles] Oakley getting tip-ins, hopefully that becomes infectious. That's what we need. We need that type of effort to get ourselves up there into the playoffs."

Jordan, who also had 10 rebounds and four steals, connected on 18 of 30 shots from the floor to lead a Wizards team in dire need of a victory. What won't pop up in the stats sheet is something Jordan did in the first half, diving for a loose ball and perhaps setting the tone.

"I said to our guys during the timeout, 'Did you see Michael diving on the floor for that ball?' " Wizards coach Doug Collins said. "That's what you have to do to win. If we are going to go to the playoffs, that is the kind of play that you have to make."

Christian Laettner, who grabbed 14 rebounds and scored seven points, took notice.

"You can't ask your 40-year-old and your veterans to be the hardest-working players on your team," Laettner said. "You have to ask that from your 20-year-old kids. It should reverberate all the way down the line."

Jordan's 43-minute performance was so dominant that the Wizards' next leading scorer was Tyronn Lue, who finished with 13.

Said Lue: "You've just got to keep getting him the ball while he's in rhythm. The good thing is he knows when he's not, and [then] he gets everyone involved."

Last night was vintage Jordan from start to finish. In scoring 40 points or more for the 173rd time, Jordan had 20 by halftime. In the fourth quarter, when the Wizards and the Nets had eight lead changes, he grabbed half his rebounds.

And when the Wizards needed someone to put them ahead for a final time, there was Jordan blowing past the Nets' most athletic player, Richard Jefferson, for the layup that gave Washington an 87-86 lead with 34.4 seconds to play.

"He played great for us tonight," said Wizards scoring leader Jerry Stackhouse, who finished with 11 points in his second game back after missing four with a groin injury.

"The only thing he needed to do tonight was get a little space. When you're in that rhythm, that's all you really want. We were all trying to make a conscious effort to help him out without getting in his way. We were doing a good job of playing off the ball but still trying to get the ball to Michael."

The Wizards shot the ball better from the field than New Jersey, making 46 percent compared to 42 percent. And they also made their free throws, connecting on 20 of 26 compared to New Jersey's 14 of 26.

The victory kept the Wizards (26-28) in stride with Orlando for the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot. They are just a percentage point behind the Magic.

The victory ended the Nets' six-game winning streak against the Wizards dating back to last season. Coincidentally, Jordan scored 45 against New Jersey the last time the Wizards beat the Nets.. It also marked the Nets' first loss in 13 Friday games.

Jefferson, against whom Jordan scored most of his points, led five New Jersey players in double figures with 25 points. Kenyon Martin added 14 points and 10 rebounds.

The Wizards entered the game short-handed. Reserve guard Larry Hughes is out for at least three weeks with a sprained ankle. Reserve center Etan Thomas needed eight stitches to close a cut lip he suffered in practice, and his night was cut short in the second quarter when Jefferson hit him in the left eye and cheekbone. X-ray results were not available following the game.

Trailing by 84-83 with a little more 1:30 to play, the Wizards got a bit of a scare when Kerry Kittles inadvertently hit Jordan in the left eye, sending Jordan to the floor for a minute before he collected himself and got back in the game.


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