- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 7, 2005

The ball looked huge. Enormous, really, dwarfing decades of bad luck and blown opportunities. As Jared Jeffries scooped up the most significant loose ball of his basketball life — an errant pass off the back of Chris Duhon — one thought raced through his mind.

Get to the rim. As fast as you can.

“He stole the ball and just took off,” said Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas. “I’ve never seen him run that fast.”

With his ensuring breakaway slam dunk, Jeffries helped propel the Wizards to a 94-91 victory over the Chicago Bulls at MCI Center, clinching Washington’s first playoff series victory since 1982.

In a hard-fought Game 6 that oscillated between ugly and desperate, Jeffries’ steal and jam proved crucial. With 36.5 seconds remaining and the score tied 91-91, Chicago guard Kirk Hinrich threw a mistimed inbound pass to Duhon, who was cutting toward midcourt.

The ball deflected off Duhon’s back, right into Jeffries’ waiting hands. Jeffries raced to the other end, his two-handed stuff sending the sellout crowd into ecstasy.

“I was surprised,” Jeffries said. “But put yourself in the right position, and good things happen.”

The same could be said for the Wizards. Though Washington was outrebounded by Chicago (48-41), shot just 39.5 percent from the floor and trailed by as many as 10 points in the second half, the Wizards made plays when it mattered most.

Down 91-87 with just under three minutes remaining, Washington looked finished when Hinrich stole the ball from Wizards guard Larry Hughes and took off for a breakway layup.

Arenas soared in from behind, however, blocking Hinrich’s shot. As Arenas lay sprawled on his stomach, Hughes scored at the other end, cutting Chicago’s lead to 91-89.

On the Bulls’ next possession, Jamison deflected a Hinrich pass to Hughes, who found Jamison for a long, game-tying baseline jumper.

As Jamison ran back down court, he wagged his tongue in jubilation, holding his shooting arm aloft.

“The last two weeks, it seems like the entire NBA was talking about how we played, how much tougher the other team was, how much guts they had,” said Wizards coach Eddie Jordan. “Our guys deserve the same respect. We has just as much heart and guts as any team in the NBA. I’m glad we proved it.”

Perhaps no player epitomized Washington’s resolve more than reserve forward Michael Ruffin. As the Wizards staggered through a 6-for-22 third quarter and a back-and-forth fourth, Ruffin did the little things: taking two charges, tipping loose balls to his teammates, tying up Chicago’s Adrian Griffith for a jump ball, slamming home a dunk that cut the Bulls’ lead to 87-86.

“Somebody has won a game for us every game,” Arenas said. “Michael Ruffin and Jared Jeffries did a great job. I didn’t want to go back to Chicago. We just had to keep fighting.”

On the night before the game, Wizards center Brendan Haywood received a call from former teammate Chris Whitney, who told Haywood Game 6 would be the toughest of the series. Whitney’s words proved prophetic — and made Jeffries’ game-clinching basket seem improbably easy, if not downright improbable.

“That shot was crazy, almost like watching the [North] Carolina championship in 1982,” said Haywood, recalling the 1982 NCAA championship between Georgetown and North Carolina, a game decided by a fluky last-second steal. “I guess that makes Jared [like] James Worthy, and Chris Duhon [like] Sleepy Floyd.”

After the game, Jeffries and Grunfeld met in the hallway outside the Wizards locker room. The two shared a happy embrace.

“You,” said a smiling Grunfeld, “did good.”

So did the Wizards.

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