DENVER - When it comes to affecting the Eastern Conference playoff race, it seems that the Denver Nuggets, the team with the NBA's second-worst record, giveth and then taketh away.
The Nuggets gave the Washington Wizards a huge break last Wednesday with a surprise win over the Milwaukee Bucks, which vaulted the Wizards into eighth place in the Eastern Conference, and into playoff position.
However, the Nuggets dealt Washington's postseason hopes a serious blow with an 88-72 win last night that knocked the Wizards back out of the eighth spot, a half game behind Milwaukee, which beat Miami, 109-87.
The Wizards (34-39) shot 17 percent in the third quarter, hitting just four of 24 shots, with all four coming from three feet or closer. Washington perimeter shooters went scoreless for the entire period and had only one shot from five feet or longer for the entire half.
The Nuggets also clubbed them on the boards in the third, with a 19-9 overall advantage, including 7-4 on the offensive glass.
In the fourth period, the poor performance continued, as the Nuggets (17-57) broke the game open with an 18-5 run that turned a seven-point lead at the end of three quarters into a 20-point blowout that sent Michael Jordan to the bench with three minutes left in his final Denver appearance.
The Nuggets presented Jordan with a brand-new motorcycle before the game, his 13th and final one in Denver.
Given the fact that he shot 5-for-19 over the final three quarters, finishing with 19 points, Jordan, who returned from knee surgery last season here, won't want to come back anytime soon.
Six Denver players scored in double figures, led by point guard Shammond Williams, who had 15 points, including eight in the decisive fourth- quarter run.
Jerry Stackhouse had 15 for Washington, the only other Wizard to score in double figures, as Washington was outscored 52-28 in the second half.
The Wizards immediately avoided the trap of mentally checking out of a game at the end of a long road trip by getting out to a 22-11 lead in the first period, with Jordan hitting his first four shots.
"Our guys know [how important the game is]." Washington coach Doug Collins said. "Every game we play the rest of the way is huge. We're going to have to win seven out of 10 games, so every time we get out there, we're going to have to play. There's no need for me to say anything. We're at that time of year where guys know what's at stake."
What was at stake last night was the chance to come home from a grueling trip to the West with not only their heads held high, but a realistic shot at the playoffs. Last season, when they split six Western games in March, the Wizards were 32-37 with 13 games left. They would only win five more the rest of the way.
"Our whole thing is if we win tonight, we'll have had a 3-3 trip, which is unbelievable." Collins said. "If I'm not mistaken, when we left, we were out of the playoffs. Everybody thought that this would be what eliminates us, this Western road trip, and if we get this win tonight, we're right in the thick of things."
Jordan, who made his first five shots in Friday's loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, shot poorly in the second quarter, going only 2-for-10. But, save for Donnell Harvey's high-flying acrobatics, the Nuggets were unable to sustain a consistent enough offense to threaten Washington.
Harvey, a muscular 6-foot-8 forward in his third year from Florida, scored 11 points in the second period, six of them coming on three athletic dunks that recalled Jordan in his prime. Unfortunately for Denver, the rest of the team couldn't muster much of an attack.
Meanwhile, the Wizards, with an ankle injury to point guard Larry Hughes and the mile-high altitude in Denver, were forced to scramble their lineup with Juan Dixon and Bobby Simmons both getting time at point guard for starter Tyronn Lue. Dixon has been inconsistent at the point all year, while Simmons hadn't played the position since his junior season at DePaul.
The two acquitted themselves well, as the Wizards held their lead throughout the period, with the advantage bulging to 13 at one point. The Nuggets posted a late flurry toward the end of the half, as Marcus Camby and Harvey each scored in the last 1:30, but Washington still held a 44-36 lead at halftime.