WASHINGTON - A win over the Indiana Pacers at MCI Center last night could have been the one the Washington Wizards could not only have hung on their mantel, but used to propel a post-All Star break dash at an Eastern Conference playoff spot.
And a win was there for the taking, as the Wizards, who had been beaten by a combined 73 points in their past three games, erased an 18-point first-half deficit to lead by as many as eight in the fourth quarter.
However, the luck of a bad team heading on a greased path to nowhere caught up to the Wizards, as they were outscored 10-0 in the final 2:17 and fell, 96-87.
"We played very hard," said a terse Washington coach Eddie Jordan, who left the post-game interview room after taking only two questions. "It was one of our best-played games in a long time. We dug in and played very good defense, and after allowing them to shoot very high the first half, we came back."
Indeed, the Wizards (16-37) played a brilliant third quarter, posting 32 points, as Juan Dixon got five of his MCI Center-record and career-high eight steals.
But Washington collapsed in the fourth as the Pacers (40-15), the team with the best record in the East, muscled their way to a win behind Reggie Miller, who had 11 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter, and point guard Jamal Tinsley, who hit a pair of crushing three-pointers in the final 1:20.
"This is just a part of this whole experience," said Jerry Stackhouse, who had 15 points. "It ain't nothing new. We want to win the games and we play hard. It just comes down to experience. That team did what it had to do at late-game stages and we didn't. It's inexperience, but it's these kinds of experiences, the heartbreaks, that build you and build your character and give integrity to be a good team."
Washington lamented a non-call late in the final 1:30 of the game, when Gilbert Arenas, who had a game-high 27 points, appeared to have been bumped on a shot attempt by Indiana forward Jeff Foster with Washington trailing 88-87.
Nothing was called and both Arenas and Jordan complained to the officials, but to no avail. Jordan pursued officials Leon Wood and Ron Garretson onto the court during a subsequent timeout.
When play resumed, Tinsley hit a three-pointer with 1:10 left to boost the Indiana lead to four. The Wizards missed on their next possession, then Tinsley banked in another three-pointer with 37.4 to go to seal the deal.
Jordan would not comment after the game, but may still face a sanction for arguing with the officials during the contest.
"That [non-call] could have changed the game, because we could have been up three instead of down one with that play," said Arenas. "It happens. They didn't call some, they gave us some calls. That's the NBA. Hopefully next time they'll give us that call at the end of the game.
"They [the Pacers] are a veteran team and they are the No.1 team in the East, so they will get the benefit of the doubt. We just have to keep playing and fight back. They got a lucky one against us. We'll just have to see them next time."
Kwame Brown had 17 points and eight rebounds for Washington, which shot 6-for-20 in the fourth and went to the free-throw line four times. The Pacers hit 11 of their 14 foul shots in the fourth.
Next for Wizards
Opponent: Milwaukee Bucks
Site: MCI Center, Washington
When: Tomorrow, 6 p.m.
TV/Radio: CN8/WTEM (980 AM)