WASHINGTON (AP) -Irene Pollin took the microphone at the end of the third quarter and nervously addressed the crowd, thanking the fans and staff for helping the Washington Wizards get through ``a very, very tough year.'
Standing next to her two sons, she then channeled the optimism for which her late husband was known.
``Next year's going to be better,' she said. ``I promise you that.'
A heartfelt guarantee, and one that won't be hard to deliver. It's inconceivable that the Wizards could have a more trying season than the one that ended Wednesday night with a 98-97 win over the Indiana Pacers.
Longtime owner Abe Pollin died in November. Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton brought guns into the locker room in December. Franchise cornerstones Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood were traded in February, and the biggest asset they acquired - Josh Howard - promptly blew out his knee. Arenas is serving 30 days in a halfway house, Crittenton is on probation, and the laborious process of selling the team to Ted Leonsis still hasn't been completed.
The Wizards' 25 starting lineups nearly matched the win total (26) over 82 games and wasn't much better than last year's 19-victory campaign. Washington's main hope lies in the fact that only six players are under contract for next season, leaving plenty of salary cap space to pursue free agents this summer.
``It's maybe not what I signed up for originally when I came,' said coach Flip Saunders, completing his first season with the club. ``But as all coaches, you love challenges. Through every adversity, through every challenge there's opportunity, and I feel good where we're at right now.'
One player who put up big numbers down the stretch was Andray Blatche, who scored 26 points to lead the Wizards on Wednesday. The winning basket was rookie Cedric Jackson's 3-pointer with 1:31 to play. The scoreboard didn't budge the rest of the way, and Danny Granger missed a 15-footer at the buzzer that would have given Indiana the win.
Roy Hibbert scored a career-high 29 points for the Pacers, who finished the season out of the playoffs with a win total in the 30s for the fourth straight year. Their 32 victories is their fewest since 1988-89, but the franchise has some young talent and is at the end of the second year of a four-year rebuilding plan.
``Ultimately, even though we're not playing for anything, I wanted to go out playing strong and have a good last game,' said Hibbert, who finally had a decent game as a pro in the arena where he starred for four years with Georgetown. ``Hopefully, the game I had today can translate to good consistent games next year.'
Blatche had 13 points after just 8 minutes for the Wizards, who led by as many as 11 in the first half. Hibbert was dominant in the second quarter, scoring 12 points with help from frequent trips to the free throw line.
Hibbert kept it up in the third quarter as the Pacers built a 14-point lead late in the period. The Wizards whittled away at the deficit and trailed by one with 4 1/2 minutes to play, setting up the close finish between a pair of lottery-bound teams.
``We think that we have put together some good young players, led by Danny Granger, Brandon Rush and Roy Hibbert,' Indiana coach Jim O'Brien said. ``We're going to get a healthy talent in (Tyler) Hansbrough back. You put all those things together, there's no reason why we can't take a nice full step forward next year.'
NOTES: Granger said he strained some abdominal muscles around halftime, but it was nothing serious and was something that been troubling him for a while. He shot just 4 for 16 from the floor. ``It's something I've been dealing with, it comes and goes, but it's not the reason. I didn't shoot it well,' Granger said. ... Jackson, who has been making his living on various 10-day contracts, scored all of his career-high eight points in the final 5 1/2 minutes. ``That little guard, I don't even know his name,' Granger said. ``No. 9, down the stretch he was pretty good.' ... Washington's Al Thornton passed the 3,000-point mark in the first half, but he left the game early in the fourth quarter with a mild concussion after getting hit in the face by Rush while driving to the basket.
The Associated Press News Service
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