WASHINGTON - The Washington Wizards have developed a nasty habit this season of losing to the Orlando Magic, the NBA's worst team, dropping both their previous meetings before last night, including the game that ended Orlando's 19-game losing streak.
And when Tracy McGrady, the league's second-leading scorer, opened the game with 12 points in the first 3:10, it not only looked like the Wizards' habit would continue, but also that McGrady would better his career high of 51 points.
McGrady eventually settled for 39 points, but the Magic, indeed, continued its dominance of the Wizards with a 104-100 win before 14,799 at MCI Center.
"We didn't come out and do anything to make them uncomfortable in the first half," said Washington coach Eddie Jordan. "It was a disappointing start to the game. They just controlled us from the beginning, and there comes a time when you have to play and rely on your half-court defense.
"Outside the Indiana game, it hasn't been there. It hasn't been good enough."
Indeed, the Wizards (13-31) fell into what has become a predictable pattern in recent weeks, namely allowing the opposition to hit at will in the first half, from practically point-blank range, then turn it on the second half to try to make up the difference.
In last night's case, Orlando (13-34) took a 16-point halftime lead, with McGrady - who had a four-point play for the second time in as many nights - and forwards Drew Gooden and Juwan Howard setting the pace.
McGrady, Gooden and Howard combined to go 20-for-28 in the first half as the Magic shot 63 percent before halftime.
"They rattled us," said Wizards forward Kwame Brown, who had 15 points and 15 rebounds but was scoreless in the second half. "They countered everything we did."
In the second half, the Wizards got to within five when it mattered as Jordan went to a hustle lineup with Juan Dixon, Mitchell Butler and Jared Jeffries coming off the bench to try to scramble things.
"We tried to provide some energy off the bench," said Dixon, who had 20 points. "Jared started off the second half, and he was playing great, going strong to the basket and was active on defense. Mitchell and I were just trying to come off the bench and play some defense, create opportunities to get some easy baskets. We did that, but we just came up short."
Said Jordan: "After a while, you ask yourself, 'Are we going to continue to play with the same guys playing the same way, keeping the same game plan, or do you play with hustle-and-grit guys?'
"Maybe they're not great scorers, but you know they're going to give 100 percent effort and be physical. We were undersized, but let's see if our defense can give something, and it did. Usually, they come through with that type of effort, and that's what you have to do in this league."
The Wizards' Larry Hughes had a team-high 21 points after missing Monday's game against Portland with a sore right knee but labored at times.
Next for Wizards
Opponent: Phoenix Suns
Site: MCI Center, Washington
When: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.
TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WTEM (980 AM)