- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Washington Wizards exited the All-Star break with the goal of taking steps to redeem themselves after ranking among the basement dwellers of the NBA for the first part of the season.

To begin “turning the corner,” as the Wizards put it, coach Ed Tapscott and his veterans said they would need better execution as a whole and more consistency out of the younger players. On Tuesday night, the Wizards got all of the above and pulled off a 111-103 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Although Washington was facing a short-handed Minnesota team that lost franchise player Al Jefferson to a season-ending knee injury, the task wasn’t easy.

After coming out with authority and leading by as many as 19 points in the first half, Washington suffered a third-quarter collapse. But Javaris Crittenton and Mike James prevented the Wizards (12-42) from wilting again, leading a 16-5 fourth-quarter rally to secure the victory.

James scored eight of his 15 points in the final 1:25 of the game - six of them on clutch 3-pointers - and Crittenton notched eight of his 11 points and handed out two critical assists down the stretch.

Antawn Jamison led all scorers with 29 points and 11 rebounds, and Caron Butler was one of five other double-digit scorers, recording 17 points.

“It felt good. This is exactly what I expected as a captain, and Antawn as well,” Butler said. “After a good practice, guys came out with a lot of energy and played good basketball. That’s the goal - to play .500 basketball the remainder of the 28 games now.”

The Wizards opened the game with a 27-16 lead after one quarter and increased their advantage to 47-28 with 3:28 left in the first half. But the Timberwolves used a 14-0 run to trim the deficit to just five points with 42 seconds remaining. Washington regrouped to take a 51-42 halftime lead.

But then came the third quarter, in which the Wizards reverted to the struggles that so greatly hindered them during the first 3 1/2 months of the season.

In the first half, the Wizards had used solid defense and crisp offensive execution to exploit the Timberwolves, who shot 28.9 percent in the first half and committed nine turnovers while mustering just five assists.

But Minnesota forced its way back into the game with a 34-point third quarter. The Timberwolves opened the half with a 16-6 burst during a 4 1/2 minute stretch to overtake Washington for a 58-57 advantage - their first lead of the game.

With the score tied at 76-76, the Timberwolves carried over the momentum into the fourth quarter and led 91-86 before the Wizards came to life again.

Butler, who led the Wizards to their last win - also a fourth-quarter comeback - knocked down a pair of free throws with 5:03 left, then answered a jump shot by Ryan Gomes with a 3-pointer that pulled Washington within 94-91. Dominic McGuire knocked down a jumper, and Crittenton scored on a putback with 3:09 remaining to cut the score to 96-95.

After Minnesota again extended its lead to three with a pair of free throws from rookie forward Kevin Love, Gomes missed a chance to increase the advantage when he missed a 3-pointer. Crittenton grabbed the long rebound, drove and scored on a layup.

Randy Foye missed a two-foot pull-up jumper for the Timberwolves, and Butler found a wide-open James on the perimeter for a 3-pointer that put Washington up 100-98 and forced a Minnesota timeout with 1:21 left.

Sebastian Telfair knocked down a 3 with 1:07 left to give the Timberwolves the lead again. But Crittenton answered with a long jump shot to continue the seesaw battle and put Washington up 102-101.

After the Wizards made a stop, Crittenton again had the ball in his hands, leading a charge up the court before driving to the basket. But with two defenders meeting him at the rim, he sent a bounce pass to James, who again was left open and buried another 3-pointer to boost the Wizards’ lead to 105-101.

The game was never in doubt after that.

“I have to give the Wizards credit because Mike James made two really big 3-pointers at the end that really hurt us,” Minnesota coach Kevin McHale said. “We were scoring enough, but we were not able to get any stops.”

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