Wizards 98, Pacers 97

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.