- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 5, 2006

The NBA schedule says the playoffs don’t begin until April 22. But the Washington Wizards don’t see it that way.

“If you look at the Eastern Conference, one or two games are separating teams four through eight,” Wizards reserve guard Antonio Daniels said. “You have teams on the outside looking in that are trying to make a surge to get in. So basically, it’s playoff time for us right now.”

Daniels’ assessment of the volatile conference is correct. One day the Wizards are the fifth seed. The next, they’ve fallen to the No.7 spot yet remain in striking distance of the fourth spot.

This is how it could be for the Wizards (29-28) and the rest of the Eastern Conference teams huddled around .500 for the rest of the regular season. Every day, they are shuffling for position in the East behind frontrunners Detroit and Miami.

While the Pistons and the Heat appear to have locks on the top two spots in the East, Philadelphia (30-28) — which is 5-1 since the All-Star break — is gaining on New Jersey (32-26) in the Atlantic Division race. The division winner is expected to be the No.3 seed in the East.

Before the break, the 76ers were the eighth seed. Two weeks later, they are seeded sixth going into tonight’s game, just a game out of the fifth spot and trailing the Nets by just two games for the Atlantic Division lead.

The Wizards, meanwhile, enter today’s game against Sacramento (28-30) having lost three straight, including two in conference. Their 99-93 loss to Indiana on Wednesday ended a 10-game home winning streak against conference foes and cost them the season series with the Pacers, taking away the tiebreaker advantage the Wizards might have had in a playoff scenario. Leading Philadelphia 2-1 this season, the Wizards still have one game left on their schedule with the Sixers next month.

The rest of the schedule is foreboding. Fourteen of the Wizards’ remaining 25 games are on the road — including 12 of the final 16 games — where the Wizards are just 9-18 this season.

This, however, is looking too far ahead for Wizards coach Eddie Jordan. He is focusing on today’s game and not much else.

“We have a game Sunday and anther game at home on Tuesday,” he said. “We can get a little cushion right here and put ourselves a little bit over .500 again. That’s what we did when we won five straight at home [last month]. Now we have to shift it into a higher gear.”

Said Gilbert Arenas: “We’re battling from here on in. We are trying to stay alive.”

Note — Forward Caron Butler is listed as probable for today’s game after suffering a sprained right ankle in the fourth quarter of the Wizards’ loss to Philadelphia on Friday. … Guard Jared Jeffries, who suffered a stained left calf against Indiana, is a game-time decision.

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