Charlotte 100, Washington 97

WASHINGTON, March 8 (AP) -- With Jason Richardson leading the way, the Charlotte Bobcats look nothing like the Charlotte Bobcats at the moment.

They know it. And opponents do, too.

Richardson scored 34 points Saturday night, and the Bobcats stretched their winning streak to a franchise-record five consecutive games by holding off the Washington Wizards 100-97.

"It tells us a lot about ourselves. If we play together and go out there and play hard, we have the chance to win a lot of games,'' Richardson said. "We're just playing for pride right now, and fortunately that pride has translated into getting back into the playoff picture.''

Amazingly, that's true. The Bobcats, who are in their fourth season of existence, are suddenly only 2 1/2 games out of the final postseason berth in the Eastern Conference.

After going 1-11 in February, they are 5-0 in March. One indication of the turnaround: Charlotte was 0-3 against Washington this season before Saturday.

"This is a different team than we've seen,'' said Washington's Antawn Jamison, who had 30 points and 10 rebounds. "The chemistry looks different. You see guys jumping up on the sideline, guys playing with a little bit more emotion than normal. Of course, J-Rich is playing at a high level.''

Richardson is averaging 28.8 points this month, and he displayed a bit of everything against Washington. That included a spectacular, reaching-back-over-his-head dunk late in the third quarter - he shot 5-for-5 in the period - and a 5-for-7 start on 3-point attempts.

"Unbelievable,'' said Charlotte's Matt Carroll, who made his first six 3s and finished with 23 points. "I see it all the time, though. That's not the first time I've seen it. It's not the last, either. ... He can put points up quick.''

Richardson scored 16 in the first quarter on 6-for-7 shooting, and 11 in his perfect third. Seven straight Bobcats points by Richardson made it 64-52 with 7:15 left in the third quarter.

Raymond Felton, who had 14 points and 12 assists, Richardson, Carroll, Emeka Okafor and Nazr Mohammed are 5-1 as a starting lineup.

"We're playing with a confidence that I don't think we've had all season long. We're playing just as a team, unselfishly together,'' Carroll said. "Everyone is just playing for one reason - and that's to win games.''

This one nearly slipped away, though.

Charlotte led by as many as 19 in the first half and 92-84 with less than a minute remaining. But Washington got to 92-89 on a 3-pointer by Roger Mason with 28.7 seconds left, and then to 96-94 on Jamison's 3 with 14.8 to go. Mason's two free throws pulled Washington to 97-96 with 10 seconds on the clock.

Richardson then went 2-for-2 at the line, and Washington's DeShawn Stevenson intentionally missed his second foul shot with the score 99-97 and 5.6 seconds remaining.

"If it works,'' Stevenson said, "it's a good call.''

Jamison had a chance at the rebound, but it slipped out of his hands to Carroll, who made a free throw for the final margin. He missed the second, and this time Jamison did grab the ball, hoisting a desperation shot that was contested. Jamison pleaded with the officials for a foul call, but none came.

It was a tough way to end Washington's chance to get back to .500 for the first time in more than a month. Instead, the Wizards fell to 30-32, one game ahead of idle Philadelphia for sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

"We knew,'' Jamison said, "how important this game was.''

His team is still without its top two players, point guard Gilbert Arenas (left knee surgery) and forward Caron Butler (hip injury).

"We're just trying to hold on,'' Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said.

Notes: Butler returns to full-contact practice Monday; he hasn't played since Feb. 5. "I'll give it a shot,'' Butler said. "We'll see what happens.'' ... Charlotte F Gerald Wallace (concussion) is to practice Monday, too, and could play Wednesday at Dallas. ... Before the game, Arenas walked through the hallway outside the visiting locker room and passed Bobcats coach Sam Vincent. "Gilbert, what's up, man? You all right''? Vincent asked. "Yeah, yeah, yeah,'' Arenas replied. "Get well, man,'' the coach said. "Thank you,'' Arenas responded.

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