- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

Tired, missing several injured starters and without their coach, the Washington Wizards had at least one salvation last night: They were facing the Atlanta Hawks.

Coach Eddie Jordan had a virus and was too sick to stay on the bench after halftime, and assistant Mike O’Koren was thrust into surprise command in the second half of the Wizards’ 102-99 victory over the NBA’s worst team at MCI Center.

O’Koren coached the Wizards for two games in November when Jordan was stricken with a blood clot in his leg. Both of those games — a loss to Philadelphia and a win two days later in Toronto — went to overtime, a fate Washington narrowly avoided last night.

“I was a little more comfortable in the first two games because I knew I was coaching the team,” O’Koren said. “Tonight just happened, and it caught me off guard a little bit. I had my notes with me, and I had Eddie’s notes with me. I’m just happy we won this game.”

Lackluster as the victory was, it served its purpose: With 12 games left in the regular season, the Wizards (40-30) won their third straight and kept Chicago from overtaking them for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls won their seventh game in a row, defeating the Charlotte Bobcats 102-99 to stay a game back.

The Wizards, 25-9 at home this season, set a record for victories at MCI Center, which opened in 1997. By comparison, the Wizards won 25 games overall last season. They can clinch their first nonlosing record since 1997-98 tomorrow at Orlando.

The Wizards beat the Hawks in all four meetings, making Atlanta the sixth team from which Washington has swept the season series.

It wasn’t an easy victory for the Wizards, who got a game-high 36 points — including 13 in the fourth quarter — from leading scorer Gilbert Arenas.

Larry Hughes added 26 points and seven rebounds for Washington, which again got a strong performance from Etan Thomas. Thomas, filling in for injured center Brendan Haywood (broken thumb), reached double figures for the third consecutive game, finishing with 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting. Jared Jeffries had a career-high 10 assists.

The Hawks have the worst record in the NBA at 11-60. Nonetheless, the Wizards found themselves trailing 93-91 after the Hawks’ Al Harrington (20 points) scored on a layup with a little less than two minutes to go.

Arenas scored Washington’s next six points to put it ahead for good.

Former Wizards guard Tyronn Lue sank two free throws with 15.1 seconds left to get the Hawks within 99-97, but Hughes hit a pair of free throws. After Lue responded with a driving layup, Arenas hit one of two free throws with 5.9 left.

Lue had a chance to tie the game, but his 3-pointer was way off the mark, striking hard against the backboard as time expired.

Arenas admitted fatigue may have caused the Wizards to have trouble with the Hawks. After all, two of the Wizards’ three earlier wins over Atlanta had been by 24 and 29 points. But after a five-game trip against Western Conference teams without the services of the injured Haywood, Antawn Jamison and Jarvis Hayes, Washington understandably was a bit tired.

“We haven’t had a day off, and we’ve been playing every other day,” Arenas said. “We don’t have our legs. For now and through the rest of the season, every game is going to be hard because we are going to be playing every other day. So we’ve got to find some way to keep pulling these wins out.”

The good news: The Wizards have an 18-12 record against the teams they face in their final 12 games.

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