- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2005

This has moved beyond the point of being a fluke.

The Seattle SuperSonics, who have emerged as one of the best teams in the NBA, found out last night that the Washington Wizards are indeed for real.

Playing in front of a national television audience, the Wizards delivered another stimulating and balanced performance that saw them take the lead midway through the first quarter and never trail again on the way to a 107-96 win over Seattle before 16,230 at MCI Center.

The Wizards placed six players in double figures, led by birthday boy Gilbert Arenas’ 27 points and seven rebounds. Arenas turned 23 yesterday.

Backcourt mate Larry Hughes finished with 21 points, eight rebounds and six assists. His most emphatic basket of the night was a slam dunk over an assemblage of flat-footed Sonics that put the Wizards (18-13) up 103-88 with 1:40 to play and forced Seattle (23-8) to call a timeout as the majority of the crowd rose to its feet.

While the Wizards made just 41 percent of their shots, they were deadly at the free throw line, making 31 of 35.

“That’s what we do,” said Arenas, who was 11-for-11 at the line. “We find a way to get to the rim. We don’t think that we can be stopped. That’s the mentality you have to have.”

Antawn Jamison added 19 points and nine rebounds, Jarvis Hayes had 15 points, Brendan Haywood 12, and Jared Jeffries 11.

Going in, the Wizards had the not-so-distant memory of blowing a 19-point, second-half lead to Detroit on Dec. 29 freshly in their minds.

“No, we didn’t even mention it at all,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said jokingly. “We know that it’s been sort of a problem for us coming out in the third quarter with a bit of a good lead. The script was almost written again, but tonight we showed the determination and a killer instinct.”

Seattle’s Rashard Lewis finished with a game-high 35 points on 14-for-26 shooting. And in the third quarter, when Lewis played with the seemingly single-minded intent of getting the Sonics over the hump, pumping in 17 points, it appeared killer instinct alone would not be enough for the Wizards.

Washington’s lead dwindled to just 88-82 after the Sonics’ Ray Allen scored with about six minutes remaining in the game. But Arenas converted a three-point play, and Jamison swished a 3-pointer from the right side that nudged the lead back to 94-82 and forced the Sonics to use a full timeout with 4:25 left.

From that point, it was clear the Sonics would not be heading back home with a win over a team that until this season had been little more than road kill for Western Conference foes.

“It’s good to get a win against a top Western Conference team, but it’s not like it’s going to be our last one,” Hughes said. “It’s not over. We need to keep knocking teams off, and knocking people down. We have a long way to go. We’re getting something special started.”

And who would debate him? Last season the Wizards didn’t win their 18th game until Feb. 26 — and after they had lost 38. A year ago, their record after 31 games was 9-22.

It didn’t hurt that the Sonics were a bit weary, having lost the night before at Orlando. Lewis got little help at all. Allen, the Sonics’ leading scorer, finished with 17 points but was just 6-for-20 from the floor. One of the better long-range teams, the Sonics shot themselves out of contention with an 8-for-28 performance from beyond the arc.

“They put pressure on us defensively,” Seattle coach Nate McMillan said. “Offensively we didn’t knock down some shots that we normally knock down.”

This was the first of six games in the Wizards’ next seven against Western Conference teams. They play host to Minnesota tomorrow, giving them a chance to exact a measure of revenge on a team that last month handed them their biggest defeat in almost three years, 109-74.

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