- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2005

They huddled near the free throw line, drawing up a last-second play. Never mind that the Washington Wizards had 0.4 seconds to cover the length of the MCI Center floor, or that an entire half of basketball remained: Desperation hung in the air, tangible as the haze from the pregame fireworks.

Of course, Michael Ruffin’s ensuing halfcourt heave came up short. And so did the Wizards.

Despite a furious fourth-quarter rally and a career effort from center Brendan Haywood, the Wizards’ season came to an end last night with a 99-95 loss to the Miami Heat in Game4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

“It’s indicative of our season,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “We never quit. It’s a learning process. We grew a whole lot this season. It’s a steppingstone.”

And one Washington ultimately tripped over. The Wizards couldn’t handle Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who capped a dominant, starmaking series by erupting for a game-high 42 points, 22 of those in the third quarter.

They couldn’t overcome a combined 13-for-49 shooting performance from the trio of Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison, even though Haywood took full advantage of Heat center Shaquille O’Neal’s absence to post five blocks and career playoff highs in points (18) and rebounds (15).

Mostly, the Wizards couldn’t stay upright because their towel-waving, nothing-to-lose comeback didn’t stick. Down 93-83 with just more than six minutes left, Washington looked finished when Arenas fouled out after losing a loose ball.

Arenas threw his jersey into the crowd, then took a seat on the Wizards’ bench, brow furrowed. Backup Steve Blake came in and hit a running jumper; guard Juan Dixon followed with consecutive 3-pointers that cut Miami’s lead to 94-91.

Dixon’s first shot brought the crowd to its feet. The second sent the building into giddy pandemonium ? and the roar intensified after Haywood’s block of Wade led to Jamison’s corner 3-pointer at the other end, a shot that gave Washington a 95-94 lead with 1:15 left and left Arenas cheering from the bench.

“They did a great job,” Arenas said. “They showed what we’ve been about all season: keep fighting. We had it, but [Heat guard] Eddie Jones got a three.”

That he did. After the Wizards and Heat traded empty possessions ? Haywood blocked Wade’s reverse layup attempt, Blake missed a pullup jumper ? Eddie Jones sank a 3-pointer from the right wing, giving Miami a 97-95 lead.

Heat reserve Alonzo Mourning blocked Hughes’ driving shot on the next possession, deflecting the ball off Hughes and out of bounds. Mourning pumped his fist, and Wade sealed the victory with a pair of subsequent free throws.

“We didn’t end up winning, but it was great to see the team keep pushing,” Arenas said. “I was proud.”

Arenas wasn’t alone. As the Wizards walked off the court, they received a loud ovation, a fitting gesture for a team that reached the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons and won the franchise’s first postseason series since 1982.

Heading into the tunnel, Arenas tossed his warmup shirt into the crowd ? his second clothing giveaway of the night ? and slapped palms with the same fans who had held signs reading “The Fat Lady Doesn’t Sing Tonight” and “Thou Shalt Not Get Swept.”

“The year before Detroit won the championship, they got swept,” Arenas said. “It won’t be a bad summer. We just have to work harder. But we know what it takes now.”

Leaning against his locker and surrounded by television cameras, a weary Jamison sounded a similarly optimistic note for next season and beyond.

“Before I got here, we were just a team trying to make the playoffs,” he said. “Now, that’s pretty much out the window. Anything less than a trip to the Finals or a championship is a failure. It’s good to have high standards.”

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