WASHINGTON - In a gentler, more forgiving world, all of the hard work the Washington Wizards exhibit would pay off in some new third column in the standings, perhaps called "near wins, with good intentions."
The NBA is neither gentle nor forgiving, however, particularly to teams such as the Wizards, who swallow 10-point second-half leads and make only four baskets in the fourth quarter. Those types of performances usually end in losses, as happened in last night's 93-90 defeat to the Miami Heat at MCI Center.
Washington's effort was decidedly improved from the last time the home crowd saw the Wizards, in Tuesday's desultory 27-point loss to Atlanta, but the outcome was the same, mixed in with a tough road loss in Philadelphia Wednesday.
"Our guys fought real hard," Wizards coach Leonard Hamilton said. "I'm hopeful that they have found the mind-set that they have to put themselves in to go out and compete.
"The last two games were obviously a tremendous improvement over the Atlanta game. If we can keep playing this way, I think we are going to start winning some games."
A sellout crowd of 20,674 - the second of the season - saw a few unusual things, chief on the list Hamilton's first technical foul of the season and his third, by his reckoning, in 28 years of coaching. That was midway in the first quarter as the Wizards picked up four team fouls and five overall before the Heat was whistled for one.
But those in attendance also saw the now predictable, as Washington went more than five minutes in the fourth quarter without a basket. Miami, which trailed by eight to start the fourth, went on a 17-6 run to take a 76-73 lead with 7:03 to go when Eddie Jones hit a three-pointer from the left wing.
The fans also saw the Heat (7-10) take on Washington by playing only seven players, an oddity in today's NBA. All of Miami's starters saw at least 34 minutes one night after a tough home loss to Utah.
Of particular note was the Miami backcourt. Jones, whose 20 points tied Anthony Mason for team-high honors, had nine points in the run that started the fourth. That left it for oft-ailing point guard Tim Hardaway, who hit a trio of three-pointers in the final four minutes, the last two giving Miami leads after the scrappy Wizards had come back.
"I don't take it for granted," Hardaway said. "I work on it. I am confident about it, and I have been doing it all of my career, all of my life."
Hardaway and the Wizards' Rod Strickland, who had a game-high 22 points, traded baskets during a dazzling one-minute stretch of the fourth quarter, engaging in a kind of "can you top this?" with the game on the line.
"It was like the playground," Strickland said. "It's always fun in a tie game at the end, but you've got to make plays."
The Wizards (4-13) didn't make the plays in the final minute, when their last two chances to pull out a win or force an overtime went awry. Strickland saw a potential go-ahead basket fly out of his hands with 25 seconds to go. On the game's final possession, Richard Hamilton's potential game-tying three-pointer was blocked by Miami's Brian Grant.
"It's old [playing well, but losing] now," Richard Hamilton said.