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A matter of resolve on Fun Street

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The Wizards are as flawed as the rest of the leading teams in the Eastern Conference, which sometimes leads to inexplicable developments, such as the beat-up Celtics rallying from a 21-point deficit to force an overtime on Fun Street.

As fatigued as the Wizards might have been following their best all-around performance of the season the previous night in Orlando, the Celtics also were in the midst of a back-to-back challenge in the schedule.

These were not even Paul Pierce's Celtics.

These were the Celtics of Ryan Gomes, who, of course, had a career night with 31 points and nine rebounds.

Yet the Wizards persevered in overtime, the Cavaliers won in overtime as well later in the night on the West Coast and both teams remained atop the conference with a 24-16 record, tenuous though the position is.

The Wizards have developed the habit of flirting with the unacceptable, whether it would have been a loss to the Celtics or one to the Knicks on Wednesday night.

The Wizards appeared to have both games well in hand before their weak-kneed defense restored the health of the opposition.

Being a perimeter-oriented team, the Wizards are prone to scoring in bunches or in dribs and drabs. The latter condition becomes especially deflating with a defense that sets out highway cones and waves dribble-penetration players to the basket with a green flag.

This is the worrisome part of the Wizards.

The encouraging part is that the Wizards have a 5-2 record in games decided by three or fewer points and a 3-1 record in overtime.

They have won two games because of walk-off 3-pointers by Gilbert Arenas and another because of a last-second dunk by Caron Butler.

The Wizards are winning the very games they lost last season, none more frustrating than David West's catch-and-shoot 20-footer at the buzzer last February, hatched as it was with a mere five-tenths of a second left.

The Wizards now have a sense a game is theirs, no matter the circumstances, which served them well against the Celtics.

A less resolute bunch than the Wizards would have agonized themselves into submission after squandering a seemingly insurmountable lead and falling behind by six points with 5:03 left in regulation.

The Wizards are generating an increasing amount of buzz around the region, as evidenced by a sellout crowd, their ninth of the season, that showed up on a cold, January night for no other reason than to exhort the first-place home team.

Selling the stars of the opposition no longer is necessary in Tony Cheng's neighborhood, not with a second-tier MVP candidate in Arenas and two All-Star-worthy performers in Butler and Antawn Jamison.

Even Eddie Jordan has a chance to coach in the All-Star Game if the Wizards have the top record in the conference through the games of Feb. 4.

This is fairly heady stuff for a franchise that endured a 25-57 record in 2004, the inaugural campaign of Arenas, Jordan and Ernie Grunfeld -- the three cornerstones of the franchise.

The Wizards have answered the skeptics in compelling fashion after 40 games.

No one has been more determined in this regard than Arenas, deemed lacking in mental fortitude after missing two free throw attempts late in overtime in Game 6 against the Cavaliers in May.

His forays in the final seconds of games this season reveal the shallowness of last spring's instant analysis.

The Wizards wore their playoff faces in Orlando after taking to heart the pregame instructions of Jamison.

They rebounded the ball and played defense with a rare tenacity in the second half. It was their most complete victory of the season. It also was the first indication of the Wizards becoming a tough out in the playoffs.

A letdown was inevitable against the Celtics, however objectionable it became late in the game.

Yet the outcome showed the resiliency of the Wizards after they reverted to old and counterproductive habits.

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