Thursday, February 19, 2004

NEW ORLEANS — The Washington Wizards didn’t need to pack jester masks on this trip to Mardi Gras country, because lately they’ve been a big joke in their natural state.

The Wizards were beaten by the New Orleans Hornets 120-98 last night at New Orleans Arena, keeping alive their string of disasters. Washington has lost its last three games by an average of 24.3 points, but this loss wasn’t as bad as the two before it because at least the Wizards (16-36) played a decent first half before collapsing.

Down 60-57 following a basket by Kwame Brown with 9:13 left in the third quarter, New Orleans (30-24) suddenly realized who it was playing and promptly went on a 19-2 run. The Hornets’ lead eventually grew as large as 26 points.

“They raised the level of play, and we didn’t respond,” said Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, voicing a familiar refrain. “They are playing for a whole lot more than we are playing for. I thought playing for pride meant a lot more, and that’s what we talked about because of our last two losses.”

There was no joy in the Wizards’ locker room, after the Hornets became the latest team to post a season-high point total against Washington.

“It’s sad, man,” said Juan Dixon, who led the Wizards with 16 points, all in the first half. “I’m sitting on the bench at the end of the first half looking at the score, and I’ve never lost like this before in my life. I felt a tear about to come to my eye — that’s how bad it hurts. Guys have got to come together, and we have to try to win some games. Me personally, I never lost like this.”

The lottery-bound Wizards have been in free fall on the road, where they have lost 14 of 15.

“I can’t say what it is right now — it’s just a struggle out there,” said Jerry Stackhouse, who finished with seven points on 3-for-11 shooting. “It’s a struggle for everybody involved, from the coaches to the players. We just feel as if things are mounting against us and we’re not able to figure things out. I guess it’s a good sign that we thought we were on the verge of breaking out tonight.”

Besides Dixon, Brown and Etan Thomas were the only other Wizards to reach double figures, finishing with 12 and 11 points.

Jamal Mashburn, one of five Hornets to score in double figures, had a season-high 26 points. All-Star guard Baron Davis added 23 points and 13 rebounds for the Hornets, who made 10 of 19 3-pointers and shot 54 percent from the floor.

The Wizards are 0-3 since losing guard Larry Hughes to a broken wrist but it’s impossible to think that Hughes’ presence — or anybody else’s — would make much of a difference in the way the Wizards have looked recently.

Having lost their previous two games at Philadelphia and Houston by a combined 51 points, the Wizards began the night looking for someone to step up and give them offense.

Early on that was Dixon, the second-year player out of Maryland. He scored 13 of the Wizards’ first 19 points, and was a reason why the Washington erased what had been a 12-4 New Orleans lead. Dixon’s start helped the Wizards overcome a miserable night for Stackhouse and Gilbert Arenas, who began the game shooting a combined 2-for-15.

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