The Washington Wizards new-look lineup took its first defeat last night.
Unbeaten after three games with Caron Butler at small forward and Jared Jeffries at shooting guard, the Wizards were denied a season sweep of the Phoenix Suns 104-99 before 16,424 at MCI Center as point guard Steve Nash had 19 points and 16 assists.
With the Wizards (12-15) looking for their first four-game winning streak of the season, reigning NBA MVP Nash was one of five Suns (17-10) in double-figure scoring. Nash had his second-highest assist total this season. Suns forward Shawn Marion was the biggest benefactor of Nash’s playmaking ability by scoring a game-high 28 points in what looked like a dunking exhibition.
“It’s nerve-wracking because you know exactly what [Nash] wants to do,” said Wizards forward Antawn Jamison, who finished with 19 points. “You try to prevent it from happening, but he’s not the MVP of the league for no reason at all. Even though he’s not flashy — he’s not dunking — he gets the job done. You’re talking about an old-school, throwback point guard. He’s pretty much the John Stockton of our era. He controlled the game when it needed to be controlled.”
Also for Pacific Division-leading Phoenix, James Jones scored 16, Raja Bell 13 and Boris Diaw 12.
Butler reinforced coach Eddie Jordan’s decision to insert him in the starting lineup, finishing with a team-high 22 points. Meanwhile, reserve guard Chucky Atkins made three of five 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and scored 11 points, and Etan Thomas also finished with 11.
The Wizards led 95-88 with 3:34 left in the game. Nineteen Wizards turnovers, including seven in the fourth quarter, contributed to their demise.
“We just had some poor possessions offensively coming down the stretch,” Jordan said.
Trailing 100-99, Washington botched two possessions in the final minute. Butler was stripped driving through the lane with 56.9 seconds left. After a Marion turnover, Jeffries bumbled a three-on-one fast break when he put the ball on the floor instead of going up strong to the basket. Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas picked up the loose ball and drove the lane, only to have his shot blocked by Diaw. Marion grabbed the rebound and dunked at the other end to give the Suns a 102-99 lead with 25.4 seconds left.
The Wizards won 112-111 in Phoenix on Friday — in the teams’ only other meeting this season — when Nash’s attempted buzzer-beater rimmed out. Nash’s miss allowed Washington to finish a Western road trip at 2-3.
With the Suns (102.7) and Wizards (100.1) coming in as two of the highest scoring teams in the league, another run-and-gun affair was anticipated.
Arenas, who had 41 points at Phoenix, scored just four points in the first half last night on 2-for-13 shooting. It was Arenas’ second-lowest scoring half of the season. In the second half of a Nov.26 game at the Charlotte Bobcats, Arenas scored only two points. For the game, Arenas was 7-for-23 with 16 points. He was 0-for-6 from 3-point range, snapping a string of 53 games with at least one 3-pointer.
“We didn’t shut him down,” Suns coach Mike D’Antoni said of Arenas. “Nobody shuts him down. Some nights you have it, and some nights you don’t.”
Despite Arena’s struggles, the Wizards were able to shoot 46.7 (21-for-45) from the field in the first half because of strong play from the bench.
Thomas scored eight points on 4-for-5 shooting with five rebounds in 14 minutes. Antonio Daniels added six points, making two of three shots from the field. Butler led all scorers in the half with 12 points.
The 6-foot-11 Jeffries, a starter at shooting guard instead of small forward since Butler entered the lineup, had nine first-half points on 4-for-4 shooting.
Arenas’ had three of his game-high four steals in the first six minutes of the second half. Washington went on an 8-0 run and had a 67-58 lead with 5:57 left in the third quarter.
With his jumper not dropping, Arenas worked hard to get closer to the basket in the third quarter, when he made three of five shots.