Thursday, March 4, 2004

It isn’t often that the Washington Wizards play a game well enough to appear to be toying with an opponent but that was the case last night at MCI Center against the Toronto Raptors.

Behind another superb game from Gilbert Arenas and a dominant rebounding performance, the Wizards dispatched the free-falling Raptors 84-70 before 13,921.

The Wizards took over the game at the end of the third quarter and blew it open in the fourth with a 15-4 run, turning what had been a 60-57 Washington lead into a 75-61 edge.

The Wizards (19-39) cruised the rest of the way, so much so they were able to insert recently acquired Lonny Baxter, teammate of Juan Dixon and Steve Blake on the 2002 national championship Maryland team, with under two minutes to play in the rout.

The victory was the Wizards’ fourth in the last five games. More important — and even more amazing — the Wizards are 41/2 games out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

“It was part of our mission statement to do the best that we could in this five-game increment,” coach Eddie Jordan said. “Four out of five, with the loss to the Lakers being the only loss, is a good accomplishment. Hopefully, we can look ahead and have some short-term goals.

“We see Boston and New York [ahead of us] in the playoff standings,” Jordan said. “If we want to move up, then that’s where we have to go through. That’s how we look at it. It’s a two-game weekend, and hopefully we can accomplish that.

Jordan was looking ahead to games at Boston tomorrow and at MCI against the Knicks on Sunday. Wins in both games would put the Wizards in the hunt to potentially make a run in the Eastern Conference.

If Arenas continues to play the way he has recently, it might not be as far-fetched as it sounds. In the last three games, Arenas has averaged 32.1 points. Last night he finished with a game-high 27 on 9-for-20 shooting.

Arenas sounded like Jordan when discussing the urgency of the upcoming games.

“It’s fun,” Arenas said. “Right now you can’t judge us on our record, you have to judge us on how we’ve been playing lately. We’re on a roll right now. Hopefully we can stay on it and keep fighting.

“We’ve won four of our last five, and what we’ve done in the past doesn’t matter,” Arenas continued. “What we’re doing right now is playing hard and playing NBA basketball.”

The Wizards got a double-double out of reserve Etan Thomas (15 points and 12 boards). Thomas also blocked four shots.

However, it seemed like anybody who had on a white, blue and black uniform was grabbing rebounds. The Wizards established a season-high with 61 rebounds, and outrebounded the Raptors by 23.

The huge rebounding disparity enabled the Wizards to win convincingly despite committing 19 turnovers to seven for the Raptors. They also held a huge advantage at the free-throw line, making 25 of 32 compared to Toronto’s seven of 11.

Kwame Brown finished with 10 rebounds and 10 points, and Brendan Haywood had eight rebounds. Christian Laettner (nine) and Jared Jeffries (nine) helped manhandle the Raptors’ soft frontline.

Toronto, which entered the game as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, continues to struggle. The Raptors have lost 10 of their last 11 games — including two to the Wizards in the last week — and they have seen their roster depleted by injuries.

Jalen Rose and Alvin Williams — both starters — did not play last night. Donyell Marshall led the Raptors (26-35) with 22 points and 10 rebounds. Vince Carter, who recently missed seven games with a sprained ankle, finished with 16 points.

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