- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

It was one more improbable comeback in an unlikely comeback season.

The Washington Wizards, playing without four key players, erased a 17-point deficit to shock LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday night in Gund Arena.

The 106-97 win was remarkable in several ways: It was the Wizards’ third straight without Larry Hughes, the team’s second-highest scorer and the NBA leader in steals. It gave them the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. And it allowed the Wizards (25-15) to match their win total from last season in less than half the 82-game schedule.

“They rattled us a little bit at the beginning, but we fought out of it,” Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas said. “That’s what we do. When we are down, we don’t worry about it. When we are up, that’s when we worry.”

Then the Wizards, who face the Philadelphia 76ers at MCI Center tonight, haven’t had much to worry about during games this season. It’s not just the fact that the Wizards, long one of the NBA’s most dismal franchises, are winning that has made them the league’s most surprising team. It also is the way in which they are winning.

The Wizards, who finished 25-57 last season but are well on the way to securing their first playoff berth in eight years, have made their dramatic turnaround with great comebacks and an abundance of close wins. The Wizards are 10-4 in games decided by five points or less, and they have won a league-high nine games in which they trailed by at least 10.

“We don’t panic,” forward Antawn Jamison said. “We are down 20 or 18 or 19 early in a game, I think other than the San Antonio and Dallas trip, we have kept our poise and found a way to get it done.”

The comeback after the Texas basketball massacres — blowout losses to the Spurs and Mavericks last week that immediately followed Hughes’ injury — may be Washington’s most impressive yet.

Injuries to forward Kwame Brown and guard Steve Blake already had depleted the roster when Hughes broke his thumb in a win over the Phoenix Suns. And with Hughes — one of the Wizards’ “Big Three,” along with Jamison and Arenas — out at least four weeks, the Wizards weren’t even close to full strength when they faced two of the NBA’s best teams on the road.

The results were predictable and potentially devastating: The Spurs scored 21 of the game’s first 23 points and won 101-73, and the next night the Mavericks built a 37-point lead early in the second half. The Wizards battled back by scoring 80 points after halftime but never really threatened.

“I don’t think people realized how much we missed [Hughes],” center Brendan Haywood said. “For two games, we definitely didn’t know what to do on offense and defensively because of the way he steals the ball so much. After the two butt-kickings that we took, we were able to make some adjustments. We put Jarvis Hayes in the starting lineup and have been doing pretty good since.”

The question after the Texas trip was whether those drubbings would be the beginning of a downward spiral.

“I won’t say doubts creeped up in our minds, but they definitely creeped up in our critics’ minds,” Jamison said. “After we got back from Dallas, we just wanted to prove we are still a legit team without Larry and we can still find a way to get it done.”

The Wizards bounced back with a victory over the unheralded Toronto Raptors but appeared outmanned headed into visits to Eastern Conference powers Indiana and Cleveland.

It didn’t help that Juan Dixon, who had been an explosive scorer, was out with the flu.

“We went to Indiana and found a way to get it done and the same thing in Cleveland,” said Jamison, whose last-second runner gave the Wizards a 95-93 win over the Pacers. “I think we got that confidence — I don’t think we ever lost it — but the confidence grew a lot. And I think people are starting to recognize we are still dangerous without Larry.”

The win over the Cavaliers showed another way the Wizards are gaining respect around the league. The Wizards got a majority of the calls from officials and shot 49 free throws to Cleveland’s 23.

Seldom-used veteran Anthony Peeler was the hero that night after his three clutch 3-pointers and 14 points in the fourth quarter. The low-priced offseason pickup was the latest role player, including Michael Ruffin and Dixon, to contribute in a critical situation.

“I just thought it was an important two-game road trip,” said coach Eddie Jordan, whose team has won seven consecutive home games. “We beat quality teams in the Eastern Conference on their home floors [despite] being decimated with personnel. It was a grinding experience. It was guts. The way the guys responded at halftime was emotional to me.”

The unflappable Jordan has pushed the right buttons, including an explosive one Monday; he had a rare tantrum at halftime, throwing around both objects and colorful language. The Cavaliers led 40-30 at the break.

“That was the first one I have seen,” Jamison said. “We lost some candy and some gum and a few other things in the locker room. When I say we deserved it, we did. We didn’t play the type of basketball that has won for us. … We regrouped. We refocused. We took our time. We stayed calm. And we were fortunate to find a way to get it done.”

The “getting it done” tone was set in Memphis in the season opener. Arenas, Hughes and Haywood were serving suspensions, while Etan Thomas and Blake were hurt. Nonetheless, Jameson and Dixon led the way as the Wizards overcame an 18-point deficit for a stunning victory.

“That was the defining win of the season,” Arenas said. “That’s when you knew there should be something special here because with six players out — four starters — and we win, I mean you can’t ask for anything better.”

Note: — Jordan said he is “99.9 percent sure” Blake will be activated tonight. The backup point guard has been out since Jan. 6 with a sprained left ankle. Hughes likely will take his spot on the injured list. … Dixon attended yesterday’s film session — there was no practice — and said he is feeling better.

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