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THE INSIDE TRACK | COMMENTARY

Wizards Play from Heart in Breaking Laker Streak

March 19, 2000|THOMAS BOSWELL | WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — When a bad team is trying to remake itself, even a small sign of progress, any excuse for hope, is gratefully welcomed. However, if you are the Washington Wizards, you barely dare to fantasize that you might knock off the best team on Earth when it is on a 19-game winning streak.

The Los Angeles Lakers came to MCI Center Thursday night for the formality of tying the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks for the second longest winning streak in NBA history at 20. The only formality, as it proved, was the full-dress burial of the Lakers' streak by the Wizards in a wire-to-wire 109-102 win that, all things considered, may be the biggest upset in pro basketball this season.

See what happens when Michael Jordan is in the house! Even Phil Jackson is powerless against him. As the Lakers' coach licked his wounds after this unexpected defeat, Wizards president of basketball operations Jordan, a huge cigar in his mouth, walked straight into Jackson's office. Just for old times' sake, no doubt. Not a bit of one-ups-manship, or "watch out for us in a few years" in it at all.

Perhaps the Lakers were poorly motivated to face a 20-45 opponent 3,000 miles from home in the midst of a road trip. They fell behind by 21 in the first half. Also, Shaquille O'Neal (40 points and 12 rebounds) picked up his fifth foul in the third quarter and had to play carefully thereafter.

Nevertheless, this game was more about the Wizards elevating their game than the Lakers disgracing theirs'. All of the Wizards' best qualities--the ones that both excite and perplex Jordan--were on display for one exciting night.

Mitch Richmond (32 points) gave the team a clutch go-to shooter in every tight moment. His acrobatic shots down the stretch were the heart of the victory. Jackson summed up the reason his streak was over in two words: "Mitch Richmond."

Just as important, however, was the fast-break intensity that Rod Strickland brought to a team that has sometimes been stagnant this season. On orders from Coach Darrell Walker, the Wizards now view Stickland's ability to force the ball up court and dictate tempo as a vital component in their future. He had the Lakers back on their heels all night.

Though Strickland had an awful night shooting (3 for 14), his 16 assists gave mid-range shooting forwards Juwan Howard (14 points), Tracy Murray (12) and Gerard King (11) many an open look. No need to do battle with Shaq inside if Strickland has just hand-delivered a wide-open 15-foot jumper.

"A huge win for us," said Walker, trying to look utterly unimpressed with it all--as though it were just another triumph in a season that began with him coaching in the CBA. "But we have to come back and do it again on Saturday against the Bulls."

Against the Bulls? The 13-50 Bulls? Why worry about them after you've looked the 53-12 Lakers in the eye--tied at 85 deep in the fourth quarter--and pulled away to win. Actually, for the Wizards, that is always the question. Walker could not help but place his finger, painfully and pointedly, on the central issue that afflicts the Wizards, even in their most wonderful moments, like this win and last week's overtime victory over the New York Knicks.

What happens next? Which Wizards team will take the court Saturday? The way to bet is that the Wizards will maintain their intensity. After all, their new boss, promises to attend again this weekend.

"I'm proud of the way they played. They were motivated to break the Lakers' streak and they had a sense of pride," said Jordan, whose presence at MCI Center seems to carry a bit of magic. "My disappointment comes when they come back the next game and don't play with the same intensity."

What if, after the best win of the season--and against Jackson, too--the Wizards lose to the Bulls, and his old nemesis, general manager Jerry Krause.

"I send in my resignation if we lose," said Jordan. Then, more seriously, he added, "I expect the same effort. They shouldn't have to have me looking over their shoulders. . . . The issue is more them pushing themselves. . . . We may not be in the same caliber as the Lakers, but that doesn't mean we can't play with the same energy.

"I've always believed in this team," said Jordan, quickly ticking off every classy win over a San Antonio, Minnesota or Detroit in an otherwise dismal season. "Tonight, they lived up to what I expect of them. . . .What happens sometimes [after big wins] is very distressing. That shows we have a lot of room for improvement. The biggest question (the Wizards face) is, 'What is it going to take for this team to play at this level every single night?

"Things are gonna change."

Even in victory, Walker seldom cracks a postgame grin. Come on, Darrell, smile. "OK, that was a good one," he said. Would he get his usual crazy three hours of sleep, then start studying film again?

"I'll take a break after this one," he said. "I'll go out to dinner with the boss. And I'll make sure he pays."

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