- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

For their overall psyche, the Washington Wizards needed to stand up to a bully, even if that bully was the owner of the best record in the league.

Last night with Indiana paying a visit to MCI Center, the Wizards did just that, holding off the Pacers for their biggest win of the season, 107-96. The Wizards (13-29), winners of three of their last four games, never trailed.

On what was probably their finest night of the season, no player shined brighter than much-maligned Kwame Brown. He finished with a career-high 25 points, with many coming in a matchup against perennial All-Star Jermaine O’Neal.

“He’s a good player,” Brown said. “You want to play as hard as you can against players like him because they can make your career. You play hard. That’s how you get your respect.”

Rather than focus on personal accolades, Brown chose to hone in on the team’s accomplishment, saying, “We all contributed tonight.”

The Wizards turned the ball over eight times. And they played very aggressively, getting to the free throw line 41 times and making 34.

“It was a joy to behold, just the effort for 48 minutes, the physical and intense basketball,” coach Eddie Jordan said. “Everybody saved the day for us. Everybody was a hero. And that’s what we needed. We respect that team because the Pacers are veterans. They’re deep and they know how to play. And we just stepped up to the challenge, we really did. In every phase of the game.”

He was correct.

Rookie point guard Steve Blake set a career-high in scoring for the second night in a row, finishing with a 18 points, five assists and no turnovers. Blake was deadly from the free throw line, making 13 of 14 overall and nine of 10 in the fourth quarter.

The Wizards’ lead grew to 12 points in the fourth after Blake sank a pair of free throws with 8:35 to play. The closest the Pacers (33-13) came after that was 91-83 with 3:36 left.

Larry Hughes added 16 points, and Brendan Haywood finished with 12 points and five rebounds for the Wizards. Al Harrington led the Pacers with 21 points. O’Neal finished with 12 points and 15 rebounds but made only five of 13 shots from the floor.

Feisty Indy forward Ron Artest finished with 15 points, seven assists and three rebounds. After his team suffered its third loss in 2004, the sometimes volatile Artest was complimentary toward the Wizards.

“I’m not shocked the Wizards can play like this,” Artest said. “The only thing the Wizards don’t know how to do is win consistently. They will step up for us, but they have to learn to do that against someone who is not as good as us.”

Brown was crucial to the Wizards’ success late in the game, playing a role in some huge plays. One came with Washington leading 92-85. On the play, Brown threw a pass to Hughes, who caught the ball in midair and laid it in without looking.

Later Brown backed O’Neal down for a hook shot. His biggest basket of the night came on a layup on a pass from Blake that gave the Wizards a 99-89 lead with under a minute remaining.

The Wizards even got chippy as the Pacers clawed their way back into the game. Late in the third with the Wizards leading by seven, Christian Laettner was called for a flagrant foul for throwing an elbow at Indiana’s Harrington while trying to clear out space in front of the Pacers’ bench.

Although this sent the energy level soaring in MCI — another rare occurrence — Laettner said it had no bearing on the outcome.

“Some of our guys were fired up about it, but I think we would have won the game even if it didn’t happen,” Laettner said. “This was a night when we played hard for a full 48 minutes.”

The Wizards played about as well as they can in the first half against the Pacers, making 63 percent of their shots and scoring 57 points. The only time they scored more points in the first half of any game this season was against Dallas on Nov.5.

In fact, Washington was completely out of character in just about every aspect. Usually a turnover factory, the Wizards committed four in the first half. But they still sat uneasily at the half. Despite playing as close to flawless as they are capable, Washington led by 57-50 at halftime.

Wizards forward Jared Jeffries left the game in the second half with an undisclosed injury or illness, and results were unavailable last night. He will be reevaluated today.

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