WASHINGTON - With each win, the Washington Wizards continue to personify the notion that their whole is, indeed, greater than the sum of their parts, as it was in their 99-94 victory over the Toronto Raptors last night.
On a night when their two big parts, namely Michael Jordan and Richard Hamilton, were shooting poorly, the Wizards, trailing by as many as eight points in the third quarter, stuck to the basics of solid defense and rebounding to stay close, until Hamilton and Jordan could deliver.
Jordan, who had three points in the first half, finished with 23, while Hamilton, who shot just 5-for-18, hit the crucial jumper with 2:28 remaining to give Washington a 93-86 lead. The Wizards would go on to their fourth straight win, and sixth in the past seven.
"We have been down and won games [before]," said Washington coach Doug Collins, whose team improved to 25-21. "We just stayed calm and poised during that period of time. We didn't panic.
"Chris Whitney hit those big shots and gave us a lift, and then we fought off three or four big field goals they made. I think our guys have a real sense of purpose about them. That's the ebb and flow of the game and we're going to fight back. That's what we did."
Said Jordan, who had 10 points in the final quarter: "We're all just believing and experiencing and giving the guys the opportunity to make big shots, and they believe in themselves. This locker room is a little bit more relaxed in the sense that we believe that we can win. We want to have a good time and we are surpassing a lot of people's expectations and we just go out and play hard and let the hard work determine how the game is going to end."
The fourth-quarter heroics of Jordan and Hamilton notwithstanding, the Wizards, who trailed 70-62 late in the third, needed the other parts to keep things going.
Whitney, who finished with 14 points, hit three three-pointers in the third quarter to keep the Raptors from blowing the game open, then the defense clamped down on Toronto (28-21) in the fourth, holding Vince Carter to a 1-for-5 in the final period.
Carter, whose tenacious defense in the first half contributed to Jordan's struggles, finished with a game-high 29 points.
But like in a 93-88 loss to the Wizards in December, when he had 23 points but none in the second half, Carter only won the battle of North Carolina alums early.
"He's trying to do what he needs to do for his team, and I'm trying to do what I need to do for my team," said Carter, who played 42 minutes on top of the 48 he played in a victory at Philadelphia the night before. "He came out on top tonight."
Along the way, Washington, which won for the first time all season when allowing a team to shoot better than 50 percent from the floor, dominated the boards, outrebounding Toronto 50-27, including a whopping 22-3 on the offensive glass. Center Jahidi White had 14 rebounds - seven offensive - while Jordan, Popeye Jones and Tyrone Nesby had seven rebounds each. Jones (14 points) made the clinching 22-footer off Jordan's assist with 9.1 seconds remaining.
The Wizards also played nearly error-free basketball for a third straight game, committing only six turnovers, while collecting 27 second-chance points to only two for Toronto.
"We like to think that we have a good team, and those two guys [Jordan and Hamilton] are our offensive players," Whitney said. "But because we have a good team, other guys can step in. Our bigs [forwards and centers] controlled the boards. When those guys are out there struggling, we have to complement them."
Said White: "They [the Raptors] are a good offensive rebounding team. I knew we really needed to try to focus on the boards and that's what we tried to do. We knew that we'd have Rip and Mike out there to give us some points and we really just had to focus on the board."
With a win tomorrow night over the Western Conference-leading Sacramento Kings, the Wizards will have their best mark at the All-Star break since the 1978-79 season, the last season the franchise played for a title. No one is suggesting anything that lofty for this bunch, but the Wizards have already exceeded most dreams their long-suffering fans dared to have.
"Sure there are bigger things, but the one thing you don't want to do is wake up too quick," Jordan said. "Hopefully, we don't wake up, and when we do wake up, we surprise everyone and it is well worth the dream."
NOTES: Collins said guard Hubert Davis, who has missed four games with a viral infection, may not play before the All-Star break. ... Collins said forward Christian Laettner, who has been on the injured list since Jan. 24 with a thigh contusion, is day-to-day. ... New Washington Redskins coach Steve Spurrier attended his first Wizards game and was cheered when he appeared on the huge replay screen.
Next for Wizards
Opponent: Sacramento Kings
Site: MCI Center, Washington
When: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.
TV/Radio: CSN/WTEM (980 AM)