- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Eddie Jordan just wanted to go home. Not so fast. As the Washington Wizards coach sat in his car following his team’s Saturday playoff win over the Chicago Bulls, guard Juan Dixon held the driver’s side door ajar, peppering Jordan with a simple plea.

Don’t give up on me. Keep the faith.

“For 10 minutes, Juan held my door,” Jordan recalled before last night’s Game 4. “I said, ‘sure. But let me go home.’ ”

The coach assented. The player relented. Traffic delays are seldom so rewarding.

Looking nothing like the player who staggered through the first three games of the playoffs, Dixon was true to his word last night, scoring a game and career-high 35 points off the bench and helping spark the Wizards to a 106-99 victory over the Bulls at MCI Center.

“I told coach to have confidence in me,” said Dixon, who shot 11-for-15, made all 10 of his free throws and added five rebounds. “I’d come back strong. I’m feeling real good. Hopefully it will keep going.”

Dixon entered the evening mired in a series-long slump, shooting just 23.5 percent and connecting on three of 15 3-pointers. In Game2, Dixon led Washington’s reserves with 12 points — but shot three of 12.

Worse still, Dixon struggled on defense — picked on by Chicago guards Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon, his slight, 6-foot-3 frame mauled by the Bulls’ big men in pick-and-roll situations. On a Wizards online message board, Dixon’s play was savaged, something that didn’t escape the guard’s attention.

“I’m a pretty self-motivated person,” Dixon said, noting that a friend pointed out the message board posts to him. “But that got me motivated.”

Did it ever. Before the game, Dixon flashed the same unshakable confidence that helped him lead Maryland to the 2002 NCAA title, appearing less concerned about his shooting woes than the NBA’s puzzling edict that the Wizards’ game shorts were too long.

Pulling Larry Hughes’ shorts up and over his waist, Dixon joked that fans didn’t want to see his kneecaps and “little legs.” But questioned about his play, he turned serious.

“I’m good,” said Dixon, who after the game said he shot 1,500 extra practice jumpers over the last two days. “My confidence didn’t go anywhere.”

Indeed. With Washington leading 23-13 late in the first quarter, Dixon came into the contest and hit his first shot, a 20-footer. After snagging a rebound at the other end of the floor, he sank a 3-pointer to give the Wizards a 29-15 lead.

Slump busted.

“My shot wasn’t falling, I wasn’t in rhythm,” Dixon said. “I promised I would get it together. I expect to contribute. I was hungry. I got my shots off early and my teammates kept it coming to me.”

The second quarter was more of the same. Much more, in fact. Dixon was fouled on a baseline floater, making both free throws to give Washington a 31-15 lead.

Next came back-to-back 3s — both sending the sellout crowd into delirium — and another pair of free throws, staking the Wizards to a 41-20 advantage.

Dixon went on to score 20 more points. Chicago rallied late but never really recovered, its fate sealed for good after Dixon’s free throws with 30 seconds remaining gave him a new career high and Washington a 102-93 advantage.

“I felt like we let him get going,” Bulls coach Scott Skiles said. “We ran into two or three screens, he ran into them solid, came off open and relaxed. He knocked them down. And as a lot of good players do, he got into a rhythm.”

By the middle of the fourth quarter, patrons in the crowd were exchanging high-fives. They weren’t alone: Hughes stood next to the Wizards bench wearing a warmup jacket, waving a towel.

When Dixon jogged over during a timeout, Michael Ruffin embraced him.

“Juan’s one of the toughest players I’ve been associated with,” Jordan said. “Plays hard, very confident. He cares about his teammates. He cares about winning.”

Dixon’s breakout performance featured few of the bad habits that defined the former Terrapins star in Games1 and 2 — overdribbling, a reliance on long, contested jumpers — and more of the clutch, spot-up shooting that helped Dixon average eight points and post 19 double-digit scoring performances in the regular season.

To wit: with two minutes left in the second quarter and Washington leading 55-37, Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas darted into the lane, drawing a pair of defenders before tossing the ball to a waiting Dixon.

Dixon calmly drained a jumper, then stole a pass from Gordon on Chicago’s next possession. It was that sort of night. Faith kept.

“[Dixon’s] been in the gym two days, taking those shots,” said Arenas, no stranger to extra work himself. “It was just a matter of time until he got hot. He was great for us.”

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