- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 8, 2003

After a season that has seen them fail to reach the lofty levels anticipated in training camp, this was supposed to be the Washington Wizards' first decisive step toward a playoff spot.
But the Milwaukee Bucks got in the way last night at MCI Center. Playing with a determination the Wizards never exhibited, they stopped Washington from running at the outset and won the crucial season series tiebreaker game between the teams 85-82.
The victory gave the Bucks (31-31) a one-game lead over the Wizards for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs with the regular season fast dwindling. More importantly, if the teams end with identical records, Milwaukee will have the advantage because it won two of their three meetings.
The loss continued a debilitating trend that has seen the Wizards run for cover whenever they seem faced with adversity which can come in many different forms for this team.
One reason they are in this tenuous position is that they have dropped too many games against bad teams. And last night, against a team that clearly seemed to have a better grip on the gravity of the situation, the Wizards spent most of the night looking for the nearest bunker.
"I sure tried to downplay the game," Wizards coach Doug Collins said. "I did not try to add any pressure to our guys. I did not want them to feel tense. But tonight we were as impatient as we have been all year long. We were in such a hurry. We didn't get to our spots, and we ran on top of each other. Finally, when our guys settled down and got the ball where I asked them to get it, we got great shots."
Despite being outplayed all night and never leading the Wizards had their opportunities late in the game.
Larry Hughes (10 points, eight assists) sank a pair of free throws to pull the Wizards within 78-76. But then Milwaukee's Desmond Mason (11 points) nailed a 3-pointer over Michael Jordan with 1:44 left.
The teams traded baskets after a timeout, and a tip-in by Kwame Brown and a pair of free throws by Jordan closed the Wizards to 83-82. Sam Cassell was fouled by Jordan with 18.8 seconds to play and knocked down a pair of free throws to extend the Bucks' lead to 85-82.
The Wizards' final possession, which started after a 20-second timeout, was a complete disaster.
Christian Laettner (19 points, eight rebounds) stepped inside the 3-point arc and rifled the ball to Hughes, who later said he was not expecting it. He passed up what looked like a good shot from beyond the arc, opting to give the ball to Jordan with the clock ready to expire. Out of options, Jordan launched a 26-footer that Gary Payton deflected.
The Wizards got an uncharacteristically poor performance from Jerry Stackhouse, who finished with 15 points on 5-for-12 shooting. And they got nothing at all from starting center Brendan Haywood, who was scoreless in 19 minutes.
"We knew it was a big game. We wanted to win it, and we gave it our all," Laettner said. "I think we were trying a little too hard at the beginning of the game. Once we calmed down, we did all right. We just could never get over the hump."
Making last night's loss even tougher was that Orlando, the team with the seventh-best record in the East (32-31), lost to the New York Knicks.
"It doesn't sit well," Jordan said of the Wizards' defeat. "Five months into the season, we shouldn't be making the same mistakes we made in the first month. At some point, you've got to progress. And we progress and regress in the same week."
Jordan led the Wizards with 27 points and nine rebounds.
The Wizards are still in the thick of things this morning, just on the outside looking in. But they better not spend too much time licking wounds. After the Wizards play New York tomorrow at Madison Square Garden, they return to MCI Center on Tuesday for another huge game against Orlando.

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