- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 8, 2005

Now comes the fun part for the Wizards, if a playoff date with Shaquille O’Neal can be considered fun.

No one with a vaguely sound basketball mind is picking the Wizards to do much more than roll over in four or five games against Shaq and the Heat.

In other words, the Wizards have been released from the burden of expectations. They are in the improbable part of the season, in the Eastern Conference semifinals after eliminating the Bulls in six games.

No one envisioned this at the start of the season.

Plenty of NBA experts picked the terminally dysfunctional Wizards to miss the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season. Plenty did not foresee the growth of Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes and the steadying influence of Antawn Jamison in the locker room. Plenty missed the value of Eddie Jordan’s calm during the 82-game regular season.

Jordan may be dying on the inside at times — as was the case in the hours leading up to Game6 — but he always manages to maintain an unflappable demeanor.

After Brendan Haywood and Kwame Brown exchanged harsh words on the bench in a game with the Clippers in Los Angeles in March, Jordan eased the fallout: “L.A. Confidential,” he said.

His wit let the air out of what we now know was the protracted behavioral problems of Brown.

If the truth be known, the Wizards have exceeded what they thought possible with a 45-win season stuffed with momentum-deflating injuries to essential personnel, a No.5 seed going into the playoffs and the franchise’s first series victory in 23 years after going down 2-0 to the Bulls.

This sequence of events is almost unthinkable after the team’s 25-57 record last season.

No wonder the crowd was on the verge of blowing the top off Abe Pollin’s playpen Friday night on Fun Street. No wonder the crowd chanted, “We want Shaq, we want Shaq, we want Shaq!” No wonder the arteries around the arena were filled with celebratory sounds: the honking of car horns, the shouts of glee, the waving of white towels.

You would have thought the Wizards had won the NBA championship, as opposed to a first-round playoff series.

A 23-year wait can do that to a city with a storied basketball tradition at all levels of the sport.

The city is recognizing the possibilities of the Wizards in the seasons ahead. This is a team built to last, from the Big Three of Arenas, Hughes and Jamison to the supporting cast of Haywood, Jared Jeffries, Etan Thomas, Michael Ruffin and the injured Jarvis Hayes.

The challenge before Ernie Grunfeld in the offseason is to re-sign Hughes and resolve the Brown situation.

Hughes clearly wants to stay in Washington. He sees what everyone sees between him and Arenas, which is the premier backcourt duo in the NBA.

With Hughes causing all kinds of complications with the offensive sets of the Bulls at one point in Game6, Peter Vecsey, the NBA guru of the New York Post, employed the comparison of Walt Frazier.

The Wizards open their series with the Heat in Miami today, and it promises to be an arduous assignment following the team’s emotional series with the Bulls and the prospect of a well-rested Shaq. A blowout loss would not be surprising.

The Wizards dropped all four meetings with the Heat in the regular season, two in November and two in December.

The Wizards, not unlike the rest of the NBA, have no genuine answers for the immovable presence of Shaq. But the rest of the Heatmen, Dwyane Wade included, are negotiable.

The Wizards might as well soak up the experience and let it rip, if not win over a few more skeptics.

The Wizards have a shooter’s chance against the Heat because of their capacity to score in bunches.

With Shaq in the house, the Wizards truly are going national, which is a long way from where they have been.

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