- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 11, 2003

The Washington Wizards had a little time away over the All-Star break, a chance to get some rest and relaxation from the grind of the NBA schedule.
But before the Wizards (24-25) went their separate ways, many of them spoke with bravado about reaching the playoffs, considering a bunch of the 33 remaining games will be played on the road against teams from the significantly superior Western Conference.
"We're really not looking at the trips we have to take out West with any fear," point guard Larry Hughes said before the break. "We feel that all along this season we've been getting better. There's a lot of confidence around here."
Now, of course, it is time to back up that posturing, beginning with tonight's game against the Sacramento Kings, formidable even without injured Chris Webber (sprained ankle). Arco Arena perhaps has been the toughest place in the league to play in the last few years. The Wizards face the lowly Los Angeles Clippers tomorrow, then Utah on Friday to end the three-game trip.
"That's going to be a test for us right at the start of the second half," Wizards coach Doug Collins said of tonight's game. "That's a team that came within a Game7 loss of reaching the finals. They're probably the deepest team in the league. And even without guys in the lineup they've shown that they can be very dangerous."
The Kings (34-17) have been perhaps the most resilient team in the league. They went the first six weeks of the season without the services of starting point guard Mike Bibby, and now they will begin the second half of the season without Webber, the former Wizard who leads the team in scoring.
And the next night, the Clippers, who again are failing to live up to some lofty expectations, are athletic enough to cause the Wizards problems. The Jazz, meanwhile, have experienced a rebirth this season with the consistent play of John Stockton and Karl Malone who defy age.
Hughes, who sat out the last two games of the first half wins against New Orleans and lowly Cleveland that put the Wizards back among the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference with a knee injury, should be available today.
However, the Wizards likely will be without leading scorer Jerry Stackhouse until Friday. Stackhouse re-injured his left groin an injury that benched him for four games earlier and doesn't want to rush back, something that only would make the situation worse.
"I want to get back as soon as I can," Stackhouse said. "But you have to be careful with this. I don't want it to be something that becomes a problem for me and the team for the rest of the season."
That would be ruinous to the Wizards because of their tough schedule in the second half beyond the two trips out West they have another next month in which they will play six games in 10 nights.
When the Wizards get back from Utah, for instance, they have home games this month against Atlantic Division-leading New Jersey and Dallas, the owner of the best record in the league.
"There's no other way to look at it other than to say that this is it," Collins said. "We're going to find out a lot about ourselves. I've tried to tell the guys that the second half of the season is going to be much tougher than the first. Now it's here looking us right in the eyes."

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