Perhaps it was the classic uniforms, a throwback to the Chicago Zephyrs of yesteryear. Perhaps it was owner Abe Pollin celebrating his 85th birthday at Verizon Center. Perhaps it was the added excitement that comes with staring down a favored opponent and the reigning NBA MVP.
Whatever it was, something got into Caron Butler and the Washington Wizards, who rallied from a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter Friday night against the Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers. With time ticking down, no timeouts remaining and the game on the line, Butler pump-faked Trevor Ariza just to the left side of the top of the key and lofted a last-second jumper. The shot clanked to the right, and the Wizards fell 106-104.
“I liked the look, and I had a lot of confidence in the shot, but it just felt short,” said Butler, who scored a game-high 26 points. “I had no intentions of driving it. I was going for the win.”
Although the Wizards (3-14) had more rebounds and outscored the Lakers in the paint and on the fast break, they committed 17 turnovers and allowed six Lakers players to score in double figures, including and Kobe Bryant (23) and Pau Gasol (17).
Los Angeles scored 35 points in the first behind Bynum, who abused Wizards rookie JaVale McGee for 10 of his 19 points in the quarter. Bryant’s first points came halfway through the opening period on a pair of free throws that fell through the net to a bizarre blend of boos and chants of “M-V-P!”
The Wizards outscored the Lakers 29-23 in the second and whittled the deficit to single digits. Butler dunked on two consecutive fast breaks and cut the Lakers’ lead to three, spurring the Verizon Center crowd to its feet and causing Lakers coach Phil Jackson to call timeout and calm his team.
“We went out and took some shots that were out of character,” Jackson said. “What we should have done was play our style of basketball and do the right thing in order for us to win.”
The Lakers emerged from the locker room and inflated their five-point lead to 20 as Bryant treated the crowd to a double-pump reverse slam in the final minute of the third.
Washington refused to go quietly, driven by inspired performances from Andray Blatche and Antawn Jamison, who finished with 18 and 15 points, respectively. Blatche and Butler caught fire in the final minutes to lead the rally.
A thunderous dunk from Blatche sliced the deficit to five with a little over minute to play, and Butler sank two free throws to cut the Lakers lead to three. Butler followed with another jumper on the ensuing possession, but Bryant banked in a jumper with 24.6 seconds to give the Lakers a three-point lead. A tip-in by Blatche pulled the Wizards within one, and when Bryant missed from the free throw line for the first time, it gave Butler a chance to win the game on the final possession.
The loss gave the Wizards their worst start since the 1966-67 season — three years after the Zephyrs became the Balitmore Bullets. But Wizards coach Ed Tapscott seemed inspired by his team’s effort.
“Right up to the last play, we had a good flow going offensively and defensively,” Tapscott said. “Doing those things shows terrific effort, and it also shows execution.”