Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The rare pair of triple-doubles posted by Jason Kidd and Vince Carter weren’t the only things that hurt the Washington Wizards in their loss to the New Jersey Nets this weekend.

Even though the Nets guards matched something last accomplished 18 years ago by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, the Wizards still managed to force the game to overtime before falling 120-114 on Saturday. Afterward, the short-handed and slumping Wizards blamed mistakes at critical junctures — particularly in the extra session — for the defeat.

As a result, the Wizards, playing with a new starting unit because of season-ending injuries to All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, seem to think almost everything must go right for them to earn the one victory they need to clinch a playoff berth for the third straight year.

“Right now, we have to be almost perfect to get a win,” point guard Antonio Daniels said. “The margin for error is that small. We can’t rely on Gilbert to come in and score 15 points in the fourth quarter and bail us out with the game-winning shot, because he’s not here. We can’t rely on Caron to have a big game for us, because he’s not here.”

The Nets (36-40) arrive at Verizon Center tonight seeded seventh in the Eastern Conference behind the Wizards (39-37) and could cut the gap between them to two games with a victory.

The Wizards last week lost both Arenas (torn meniscus) and Butler (fractured hand) to injuries that will keep them sidelined the rest of the season.

Carter had 46 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in the Nets’ victory over the Wizards on Saturday. Kidd, the other half of the Nets’ starting backcourt, finished with 18 assists, 16 rebounds and 10 points. Carter and Kidd together came up just seven rebounds shy of outrebounding the entire Wizards team.

One thing Wizards coach Eddie Jordan wants to see his team do better is defend in transition. Otherwise, he knows Kidd could have a huge statistical game again.

“Jason Kidd is the best at probing and matching,” Jordan said. “Even when you think you’re back and matched up, there’s another cutter he’s looking for. He’s the best in the business at that, probably the best in the history of the league. We have to take care of the cutters and trailers.”

The Wizards easily could have won their past two games had they not suffered those kinds of breakdowns.

The Wizards forced the Nets to overtime with a 3-pointer by Antawn Jamison with 1.1 seconds to play but allowed New Jersey to begin the extra period with an 8-0 run. The Nets never trailed in overtime.

Washington likewise failed to capitalize on a horrible shooting performance from Cleveland’s LeBron James on Friday. The Wizards shot poorly from the free throw line (12-for-22) and turned the ball over a whopping 23 times.

The poor execution is in part the result a lack of practice time for the new starting five, which features Daniels in place of Arenas and Jarvis Hayes starting for Butler at small forward.

The Wizards played two sets of back-to-back games last week separated by only one day off, so they haven’t really had a chance to put in an offense tailored to the current starting lineup.

They play another back-to-back set this week, facing the Nets tonight and the Miami Heat on the road tomorrow.

“The lack of practice [has been a problem],” Daniels said. “The chemistry is there with this team; the only problem is that 76 games into the season it’s difficult to go a different way from what has been working for you.”

Meanwhile, teams are taking note of the Wizards’ struggles over the last week. Asked which team he would like to face in the first round of the playoffs, the Toronto Raptors’ Juan Dixon didn’t hesitate.

“We want that third seed,” the former Wizards guard told the Toronto Star. “We’d rather play a depleted Washington team than a Chicago or Cleveland in the first round.”

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