NEW YORK - Michael Jordan never developed a rhythm with his jump shot, didn't make the right decisions down the stretch and couldn't knock down his last shot.
Nope, this sure wasn't the No 23 of old. That's who the Washington Wizards needed this night. Missing his biggest shot of the game and committing two crucial late turnovers, Jordan's Wizards lost 93-91 to the New York Knicks Tuesday night in his return from a nearly three-and-a-half-year retirement.
"The game is a little bit different, my teammates are a little bit different, and obviously the outcome tonight is a little different from what I wanted," Jordan said. "But I feel good about myself and about what the team did tonight, and we have to continue to work in the right direction."
Jordan spent the majority of his minutes at point guard in his big comeback game, scoring 19 points and putting up decent numbers in other categories.
But the defining moment came when he missed a three-pointer in front of the Knicks' bench with 18 seconds left that would have tied the game. "I had a good look and it came up short. My shot today was pretty short and pretty flat," Jordan said. "It could have been a great situation, but it's the beginning of a long season-that's the way I look at it." Jordan's final miss was his 14th in 21 attempts. He also had the two late turnovers, along with an airball and a missed breakaway layup in the first quarter.
Wearing his familiar uniform No. 23 but the unfamiliar colours of blue, black and gold, Jordan made his much-anticipated return before a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden-the site of some of his greatest moments. He was cheered during player introductions, jeered when he tossed up an airball less than three minutes into the game and scrutinised on every move the rest of the night.
The Knicks took an 87-86 lead into the final two minutes, and after Latrell Sprewell hit a turnaround, Jordan answered with a 21-footer-his first field goal of the quarter-to cut New York's lead to 89-88. The 38-year-old Jordan missed his next shot, also a jumper, and then failed to outjump Kurt Thomas, allowing him to grab an offensive rebound. That led to a pair of foul shots by Othella Harrington with 34 seconds left for a three-
Jordan threw an ill-advised pass that was stolen on Washington's next possession, but Christian Laettner stole the ball back. After Jordan missed the three-point attempt, Thomas was fouled on the rebound and made both shots for a 93-88 lead that all but ended it. "When I turned the ball over and saw it go into his hands and I saw him go for the shot, I thought he was going to make it," Thomas said. "It's fortunate that he didn't and I was able to get the rebound."
Sprewell led New York with 28 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter, and Allan Houston had 22 to reach 10,000 points for his career. Chris Whitney scored 18 points to lead the rest of the Wizards, who would have made Jordan's return a much bigger success if they had converted a few of his precise passes into field goals.
As bad as his teammates looked for three quarters, they managed to open the fourth quarter with an 8-0 run and take a 71-69 lead before Jordan checked in with 8:57 left. Jordan hit his next shot and got an assist on his next pass, helping the Wizards maintain a slim lead.
The game stayed close the rest of the way, setting up an ending that could have been dramatic if Jordan had been a little more accurate with his shot. He ended up missing four of his final five attempts and showed no emotion when the game ended.
Jordan's first touch 10 seconds into the game resulted in a pass to Laettner for a shot that clanged off the rim. Jordan also missed his first jumper-a 17-footer that hit hard off the back rim-before he used a surprisingly quick first step to drive around Sprewell 90 seconds into the game for a finger-roll that bounced around and in.
They were Jordan's first points since he hit a jumper over Utah's Bryon Russell in Game Six of the 1998 NBA Finals to give the Chicago Bulls their sixth championship.
Jordan went on to hit successive jumpers in the first quarter, although he had another less-than-great moment when he missed a contested breakaway layup after intercepting a pass by Mark Jackson. Jordan finished the first half with 11 points, four assists, three rebounds and three steals. He had only four points and one rebound in the third quarter. "I tell you what, I think he was a dominant player on the floor. He didn't shoot particularly well," Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy said.
It was a special night in New York, not only because of Jordan's comeback, but also because of the pre-game routine that was changed by the 11 September terrorist attacks. There was also Game Three of the World Series being played a few miles north in the Bronx between the Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks. Every person entering the Garden was screened with a hand-held metal detector, and the Knicks put on a pre-game presentation without its usual glitz.
Rather than introducing players one by one as they normally would, both teams lined up on opposite foul lines with members of the armed services, postal service, and police and fire departments. A police drum corps played as each of them was introduced. Jordan received a loud ovation from the fans, who were already on their feet by the time he was introduced. Some of the players and Washington head coach Doug Collins sang along to "God Bless America."
Earlier in the day, Jordan offered some of his thoughts on all the Washington Wizards' doubters out there. "You know, the unknown is dangerous," Jordan said. "Everyone speculates, but no one knows-and I think that's a part of the challenge. This young team, although they've never won anything and have never really been put in a situation to win, may be a story in the making." (AP)