- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Washington Wizards — battered, bruised and short-handed — put up a valiant effort last night at Verizon Center against the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. But in the end, it just wasn’t enough.

In a familiar theme, the Wizards hung with the Spurs for the better part of the game, but they wilted down the stretch and fell 85-77 at Verizon Center mainly because of an 18-11 deficit in the fourth quarter.

Antawn Jamison led Washington with 18 points and seven rebounds, and Andray Blatche added 16 points and 15 rebounds. DeShawn Stevenson scored 11 for the Wizards, whose scoring output marked a season low. San Antonio was led by 23 points and nine rebounds from Tim Duncan.

It was the fifth straight loss for the Wizards, who played not only without Gilbert Arenas — out after a second knee surgery for all but eight games this season — and Caron Butler, who led Washington (24-24) in scoring with Arenas out. Butler, who missed three games last week after straining his left hip flexor, aggravated the same injury in last Wednesday’s 101-96 loss at Philadelphia and is listed as day-to-day.

Unlike in the loss to the 76ers, the Wizards didn’t blow a double-digit lead because of poor effort. The Spurs were simply the better team.

“They just execute you to death,” said Wizards point guard Antonio Daniels, who played for the Spurs from 1999 to 2002. “When they have a guy [open], they can go to down low and get a bucket every time, and they surround him with those shooters, it’s like, well, pick your poison. And if those guys are hitting their shots, it can be a long night.”

The Spurs (31-16) also have dealt with injuries this season. Duncan has missed four games because of injury, Manu Ginobili had to sit out five and most recently point guard Tony Parker missed a total of seven — including the last three — with two injuries.

But the difference between the teams is depth. The Spurs, a more experienced team than the Wizards, have plugged players into the lineup and remain well above .500.

Washington managed to compensate for Arenas’ absence but has struggled since Butler’s injuries, leaving Jamison as the only consistent source of offense.

The Spurs relied on their depth in the third and fourth quarters as Michael Finley and Robert Horry sparked a surge. San Antonio’s bench outscored Washington’s 25-14.

The Wizards turned in a solid defensive performance in the first half, and trailed 38-37 after two quarters.

With 5:57 left in the third quarter, the Wizards, playing in front of their 14th sellout crowd of the season (20,173 fans), took their first lead of the half on a layup from Blatche for a 47-45 advantage.

The Wizards’ grabbed a 56-51 lead, their largest of the game, with 1:57 left in the quarter. But the Spurs pulled within 58-57 on jumpers by Horry and Finley and a foul shot by Horry heading into the fourth quarter.

San Antonio began its game-clinching burst with a jumper from Jacque Vaughn that gave his team a 59-58 lead. Finley capped the surge with a 3-pointer that extended the lead to 70-62 with 8:26 left to play.

The Wizards attempted a charge, however. Stevenson hit an open 3 and Blatche scored in traffic to briefly cut the lead to 72-67 with just more than six minutes left.

“We went, in my mind, toe to toe with the world champions,” said Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, whose team shot just 35.4 percent from the field. “It’s encouraging when your team plays hard and stays organized. That’s been our rallying cry, and that’s what we did for the most part of the night. You look at the Spurs and they have guys … that when the offense breaks down or they move the ball, they can really create. And we don’t have those type of creators right now.”

Last night at Verizon Center

QUOTABLE

“They were doing pretty good down there: [9-37], I wouldn’t mind him staying down there.”

— Wizards coach Eddie Jordan joking about seeing Shaquille O’Neal leave Eastern Conference foe Miami for Phoenix

SEEN AND HEARD

While the Phoenix Suns were panned in some quarters for trading for seemingly over-the-hill O’Neal, many inside the Wizards’ locker room believe Phoenix general manager Steve Kerr made a move that will win him the championship this season or next. Gilbert Arenas and DeShawn Stevenson expect Shaq — slowed recently by a hip injury — to make a miraculous recovery and start contributing right away.

Arenas envisions the Suns abandoning their run-and-gun game when Shaq’s in the lineup and opening things up by dumping the ball into the paint, which will force opponents to crash to the paint. Shaq, a solid passer, will find an open opponent on the perimeter and zip the ball to him for an easy shot. …

Antonio Daniels, who played for the Spurs from 1999 to 2002, received a visitor before the Wizards’ game. San Antonio power forward Tim Duncan sneaked into the Washington locker room while Daniels, who had his back to the door, talked to Stevenson and Arenas. Duncan rushed up and caught Daniels in a headlock. Daniels, after escaping, wondered why no one warned him and then invited Duncan to sit in the chair next to his locker so they could catch up.

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