- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Washington Wizards desperately want to take the fifth.

Now that they have clinched a playoff berth, the Wizards (40-40) want to finish as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference to avoid a first-round meeting with Detroit, Miami or New Jersey, who are seeded one through three.

With all the playoff berths locked up in the East, any of the four lower seeds — the Wizards, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Indiana Pacers and the Chicago Bulls — could finish anywhere from fifth to eighth.

The Bucks, Pacers and Bulls all won last night, improving to 40-41.

As a result, the Wizards might need to win both of their final two games — tonight against the Bucks at Verizon Center and tomorrow at the Detroit Pistons — to clinch the fifth spot. The Wizards win a tiebreaker only with the Pacers, so a split — or two defeats — could be dangerous.

Following their 104-92 playoff-clinching victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Wizards found themselves back in fifth place. That victory, along with guaranteeing the Wizards consecutive playoff berths for the first time since 1988, ended a five-game losing streak that coincided with the absence of starting small forward Caron Butler (sprained right thumb).

The Wizards believe they would have the fifth seed already locked up had Butler not gone down with his injury. They had won nine of 14 games before Butler was injured.

Wizards coach Eddie Jordan just would prefer to take all of the guesswork out of it by winning the final two games.

“We want to win. We want to hold on to the fifth spot,” Jordan said. “When we left here [for a six-game road trip] almost 14 games ago, we left at fifth, and we came back at fifth. That’s the name of the game. Let’s win a tough game against Milwaukee. We lost a heartbreaker there.”

The players apparently feel the same way.

“We’re relieved [to get in], but we’re not satisfied,” center Brendan Haywood said. “Just because we’re in doesn’t mean we can go out there and tank these last two games. We’ve got to go out there and play hard because we want to maintain the spot we’re at. You have to want to take pride in finishing fifth. We want to finish strong and enter the playoffs on a good note.”

If the Wizards finish fifth, they will play the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have an MVP candidate in LeBron James but little playoff experience beyond Eric Snow, Donyell Marshall and former Wizards guard Larry Hughes.

The Wizards won the season series against the Cavaliers 3-1, although Cleveland probably gave less than 100 percent in Sunday’s loss with the fourth seed locked up.

Finishing eighth would mean a date with the Pistons, who have the league’s best record. The Wizards are 2-0 against Detroit with their final meeting tomorrow night.

If the Wizards finish seventh, they would play the Miami Heat, which swept Washington in last year’s playoff series playing without Shaquille O’Neal for some of the games. The Heat also swept the Wizards 4-0 this season.

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