WASHINGTON -- For almost 3 1/2 quarters last night, the young Toronto Raptors ran circles around the Washington Wizards, leading by as many as 14 points. But on the verge of starting the season with two losses, the Wizards' veterans stepped up their games.
Mitch Richmond, shaking off a dismal debut as a Wizard on Friday night, scored 26 points and made several key defensive stops down the stretch. Rod Strickland recorded a double double with 16 points and 11 assists. And Calbert Cheaney hit the game-winning shot, a 22-foot jumper with 11 seconds left that gave the Wizards a 98-97 victory in their home opener.
The Wizards evened their record at 1-1, which was important considering the team will play its next four games on the road. It was far from a pretty win against a Toronto squad that played without forward Kevin Willis (back spasms), but for a team trying to get in sync, the Wizards will take any victory they can.
"It was a gutsy win," said Wizards coach Bernie Bickerstaff. "Right now we don't have any rhythm. We have to find ways, we have to be lucky and we have to catch some breaks."
The Wizards caught very few breaks for three quarters, as the Raptors took control behind the hot shooting of Charles Oakley (18 points), Doug Christie (17) and Dee Brown (17). When John Wallace made a layup with 8: 36 left, the Raptors had an 84-70 lead and the sellout crowd at the MCI Center loudly booed the Wizards.
"Yeah, they were letting us hear it because we weren't playing well," Strickland said. "Our [rhythm] is going to come as we go. Right now, we're trying to learn each other's game. I think in time our ball movement will be better."
Trailing by 14, the Wizards responded with a 19-6 run. Richmond started it off with a short jumper and ended it with a three-pointer with 3: 12 left that had Washington within 90-89.
Richmond scored 12 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, a welcome sign after an opening night when he scored just eight points and took just nine shots in Friday night's 96-81 loss to the Indiana Pacers.
"That's Mitch," Strickland said. "He's been that way for 10 years. He's a great player, a clutch player."
Other things also went well for the Wizards. The team did a good job working the pick-and-roll, allowing Strickland to pass off for four assists in the fourth quarter. And the Wizards ran the high-low post offense effectively, with Juwan Howard twice dumping the ball low to Otis Thorpe for easy fourth-quarter scores.
But the Wizards still trailed 96-92 when Thorpe (14 points, including eight in the fourth quarter) fouled out. From there the Wizards applied pressure defensively as Richmond stopped Christie and Tracy McGrady on consecutive Toronto possessions.
"We started playing physical on the defensive end," Richmond said. "For most of the night our rotations weren't up to par. In the fourth quarter we dug deep and came together."
Still, someone had to make that big shot. And that came with the Wizards trailing 97-96. Strickland drove down the middle of the lane and -- drawing the defense -- dished to a wide-open Cheaney. The forward calmly sank the shot with a foot just on the three-point line, giving Washington a 98-97 lead.
"Right when it left my hand, it felt good," Cheaney said. "I thought it was a three."
Toronto had one last chance to win, but Christie, closely defended by Cheaney, could not get his short jumper in the lane to fall.
"These guys really dug down and made some stops defensively," Bickerstaff said. "I don't like the way we rebounded the ball; in the first half it was pathetic. But we'll take the win."
NOTE: The Wizards have been selected to be host of the 1999 NBA Draft on June 30 at the MCI Center.
Pub Date: 2/07/99