- The Washington Times - Monday, February 10, 2003

The Wizards are down to 33 games and an unsettling reality, starting with the game in Sacramento tomorrow night.
This is the first of a three-game trip to the West Coast, the prelude to the six-game swing there in late March.
The capacity of the schedule to torment the Wizards is impressive. Nineteen of their 33 games are on the road, with seven back-to-back sets.
This merely increases the playoff uncertainty of a team that is running out of games to make up for what has been lost in the first 49 games of the season.
The Wizards have a 24-25 record and an aversion to double-digit leads. They are about six games from where they thought they could be at the All-Star break.
The six games are too easy: the 68-point opener in Toronto; the 2-for-22 shooting meltdown in the fourth quarter in Minnesota; the loss to the previously winless Grizzlies in Memphis; the absence of energy and conviction at home against the Trail Blazers; the no-show at home against the secretaries moonlighting as NBA players with the Raptors; and the 31-point second half at home against the Timberwolves.
This is not to minimize the team's 65-point showing in New Jersey in December or the 17 fourth-quarter points from Marcus Fizer that sullied Michael Jordan's last game in Chicago.
Life in the NBA is especially fragile if a team lacks a vague counter to Fizer.
The Wizards are going to need 41 or 42 victories to secure the last playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, barring an improbable deviation from the last few seasons. The Pacers needed all 42 victories, plus a tiebreaker to make the playoffs last season. The Pacers gained the eighth seed in 2001 with 41 victories, the Bucks the same in 2000 with 42 victories.
Counting victories is tricky stuff in the NBA, particularly among the ordinary. With the Wizards, the count stops in the vicinity of 40.
They have an obligation to orchestrate a surprise outcome or three, if Jordan's farewell is to be extended to the postseason. If not, his last game at home with the Wizards is April14.
David Stern, the NBA commissioner who values another dollar with the best, has opted to expand the first round of the playoffs to a best-of-7 format, which cuts a lot of different ways, and not just in greater revenue shares for all parties.
The seventh and eighth playoff spots in the Eastern Conference appeared thankless in the old best-of-5 engagement, mostly because the Nets and Pacers have exorcised the parity that gripped the conference following Jordan's retirement in 1998.
The team that wins the first two games at home in a best-of-5 series controls all the psychology, which is a considerable part of the process in the playoffs. The Kings, for instance, still have to address that part of themselves.
A longer series is inevitably fairer to the stronger team. Yet it also allows the inferior more latitude. That could mean an awful lot to the Wizards, if only because of the X factor of Jordan. He is not the player he once was, and not even the player on the road that he is at home.
In the playoffs, however, Jordan will have the abbreviated nature of the postseason to let it all out. He won't be playing with the notion to conserve energy. He will be playing to push the opposition to a place it does not want to be. No team is liable to feel too comfortable in a playoff series with Jordan, who holds all the intangibles even as he approaches his 40th birthday.
How do you think the Nets or Pacers might respond to a Game7 against Jordan? We can imagine all the delectable possibilities. Ron Artest, to note one of the shakiest psyches in the NBA, just might be a candidate to go off the deep end before the opening tip.
Of course, the Wizards have to get to that point first, with the path before them arduous.
If it helps, the Magic, the 76ers, the Bucks, the Celtics and Hornets are equally suspect. That goes double for the Bucks, the leading candidate to discombobulate before the middle of April.
The Wizards should not be in this position. Before the 10-day contract team of Toronto dropped into town last month, coach Doug Collins suggested that securing homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs should be the team's objective.
But what can you do? The shoe salesmen, department store clerks and gas-station attendants with the Raptors defeated the Wizards 84-75, and that was that. The season changed right there, in an instant, and the rest of the journey is about the Wizards finding some way to make the playoffs.

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