- The Washington Times - Friday, November 5, 2004

Washington Wizards coach Eddie Jordan got a few good laughs over the summer when he heard the NBA’s new Southeast Division described as potentially the weakest division in sports history.

“It’s funny,” Jordan said yesterday. “I don’t know. Shaq, Steve Francis, Antawn Jamison — I think there are some real quality players there.”

Tonight at MCI Center, Jordan and the Wizards will get their first look at the Miami Heat since the team acquired Shaquille O’Neal — perhaps the league’s most physically dominant player — in a multi-player trade that made his new team a championship contender while leaving his old one, the Los Angles Lakers with former adversary Kobe Bryant, a fringe playoff team.

The game is the home opener for the Wizards, who started the season with road victories against a playoff team (Memphis) and an expansion team (Charlotte). This marks the first of four times this season — the second is Tuesday in Miami — Washington will see O’Neal, whom the Wizards used to face just twice a year.

“It’s really a good way to test yourself early in the season,” Jamison said. “We accomplished what we wanted to do with two road wins. But we don’t want to look too far down the road.”

Nonetheless, there is no mistaking the good feelings that the team’s first two victories generated. The first came under what NBA commissioner David Stern called “some of the most adversarial circumstances” possible as the Wizards won without three starters (Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Brendan Haywood) due to suspensions and a fourth, Kwame Brown, due to foot surgery.

The Wizards are 2-0 for the first time in 10 years and have won their first two road games for the first time since 1985. But the Heat present an entirely different challenge.

The Wizards still are without 7-footer Haywood, who is serving the final game of a three-game suspension. This also is the first game the absences of the 7-foot, 270-pound Brown and the 6-9, 260-pound Etan Thomas (strained abdomen) will be noticed.

Although reports out of Miami are that O’Neal has slimmed down, that is a euphemistic way of saying the big man’s weight is below 350 pounds. This isn’t a good thing for Michael Ruffin and Samaki Walker, the guys who will be O’Neal’s dance partners tonight.

“We don’t have too many strong bodies other than Michael Ruffin,” Jordan said. “I don’t believe in the concept that you let him get his and shut everybody else down. They have guys like Dwyane Wade and Eddie Jones, so they are too good to do that.

“Shaq is a problem because he’s just like a tank. He changes our division because he is so dominant. He changes everything. The one thing you don’t want him to do is catch and dunk, catch and dunk, catch and dunk. Then you have a big problem.”

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