- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2003

The Cleveland Cavaliers come to town tonight as the Washington Wizards' final opponent before the All-Star break.
Easy win, right?
Not necessarily.
The Cavaliers are 9-39 overall, 3-23 on the road and 25 games out of first place in the Central Division. They are as bad as bad gets in the NBA, but the Wizards have had a tendency to play down to and sometimes below their competition at home.
As a result, they have coughed up games at MCI Center to lowly teams like Toronto and Golden State, losses that in the muddled Eastern Conference could prove costly at the end of the season.
And if that trend continues in the second half of the season, when the Wizards make two trips out west, any playoff talk still percolating in the team's locker room could be just that talk.
"[Tonight] is a big game for us, so the momentum continues going into the All-Star break," said Michael Jordan, who will appear in his 14th and final All-Star Game this weekend in Atlanta. "We come out of the All-Star Game with some tough road games with Sacramento, the Clippers and Utah. We have to really start to pick up ground a lot.
"In the first half of the season there were some games that we felt we should have won. You can blame that on a lot of reasons youth, new players, whatever. Either way we have to go into the second half and win games that everyone is looking at and saying we probably can't win."
In fairness to the Wizards, they have done that to a degree in the first half. They balanced some ugly losses such as the night they ended Memphis' string of 13 consecutive losses to start the season with wins against the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio and, most recently, New Orleans on Saturday, when they rode Jordan's season-high 45 points to victory without two starters, Jerry Stackhouse (groin) and Larry Hughes (knee).
Hughes could be back by tonight or at least by the start of the three-game road trip next week. But Stackhouse, who originally thought he would be ready to return when the Wizards begin their road trip next Tuesday in Sacramento, now says he won't be back "realistically until the last game of the trip."
Jordan said the two most important things for the Wizards in the second half of the season are to remain healthy and for young players like Kwame Brown, Etan Thomas, Brendan Haywood and Juan Dixon to continue to develop.
"Now we're at the point in the season where we can't use the excuse that we're too young or that we've got guys that are too old and we can't play them," Thomas said. "We're at the point in the season where we can't give away any more games."
But the biggest obstacle in front of the Wizards is their schedule, which is more hostile in the second half than it was in the first. Of their 33 remaining regular-season games after the break, 19 are on the road and 13 are against teams from the decidedly superior Western Conference. That includes a harrowing six games in a 10-night western swing at the end of the month that will include the Lakers, Portland, Phoenix and Golden State.
"Nothing is ever easy," Wizards coach Doug Collins said. "The team hasn't been in the playoffs in a long time. If we're going to do it, we're going to do it the hard way. We kicked away some winnable games [in January], and now we have to find a way to make them up on the road, and it's not going to be easy."
Each of the eight teams ahead of the Wizards in the race for the Eastern Conference playoffs has a better road record than Washington.
Last season the Wizards reached the All-Star break at 26-21. And just like last season, the Wizards begin the second half of the season on the West Coast. Washington fell apart down the stretch when Jordan's achy knees ended his season prematurely. The Wizards won just 11 games after the break and finished 37-45 and out of the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.
But it doesn't appear as if Jordan, who will turn 40 on Feb.17, and his knees will be a problem.
"They feel fine," Jordan said. "Last year at this time I knew I had some issues. I was just going to see if I could get around them. And I couldn't. They really started to take a toll. But this is a different team, too. Now we've got players who can step up and take some of the load. But my knees feel so much better than they did last year."

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