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Recent slide not deflating for Wizards

- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2008

Even before Saturday's much-needed win over the Charlotte Bobcats, Washington Wizards coach Eddie Jordan insisted his team hadn't slipped into a pattern of losing or felt any pressure mounting inside the locker room.

The fifth-year coach was outwardly upbeat, even when he said his top two players, Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, were not close to returning from injuries. Jordan said the Wizards are "working with what we have" and that "there's nobody coming to save us right now."

And though the team is mired in a 2-10 slump, it doesn't appear to be optimistic, pressure-deflecting coach-speak. It's an attitude and belief the Wizards have embraced.

"We have enough in this locker room to win games," point guard Antonio Daniels said. "We've proven that. We've proven that."

Added center Brendan Haywood: "Our stretch hasn't been that great, but at the same time the team's spirits are still up because we know we have a lot of guys out. It's not like we have our whole team healthy and we're just losing night in and night out and don't know where to look for answers. We know when we get Caron Butler back, we get Gilbert Arenas back, that we're one of the top five teams in the East."

And the reality is even without Butler and Arenas, Washington remains in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Thanks to a weak conference in which 10 of the 15 teams are below .500, the Wizards (26-29) haven't lost much ground despite a 2-9 record in February.

"The thing I like about it is we're competing night in and night out no matter who's out there on the court," Antawn Jamison said. "We feel like we have enough to get it done and we're playing well enough to do it. We've just been coming up short in the later parts of games."

If the playoffs began today, Washington would own the sixth seed and wouldn't even have to face one of the conference's two juggernauts — Boston and Detroit — but instead would draw a first-round series with third-ranked Orlando.

The Wizards are 5½ games behind the Cavaliers for the fourth spot and are 4½ games back of the Raptors, who hold the fifth spot.

New Jersey ranks seventh and stands a game and a half behind Washington, and Philadelphia is two games behind in the eighth spot.

"It's very encouraging that we've had a bad stretch, but we're still in the playoffs," Haywood said. "We've lost a lot of games, but if the playoffs start today, we'd be sixth or seventh. So we realize when guys come back like Caron and Gil that our wins go up. I see us being over .500 when the playoffs start, so we're in good shape."

Also keeping the Wizards hopeful is the fact that in each of their last four losses — games against Phoenix, Golden State, New York and Cleveland — they were in position to seize victory in the final minutes of regulation.

Washington lost by one point to Phoenix and by three to Golden State.

Against the Knicks last Tuesday, the Wizards allowed New York to tie the game with less than 20 seconds left and then collapsed in overtime. Then on Friday, Washington led until seven seconds remained before LeBron James won it for Cleveland at the foul line.

"We're trying to get guys to close games out, and the guys that are on the floor, that's not their role," Jordan said. "... It's their role now because that's what we have to do, but they have to have that experience — maybe pass/fail to get the experience of doing it. But we're playing out of our roles, but the most important thing is we're playing hard."

Said Haywood: "Right now we're just trying to hold down the fort. We've been losing a lot of close games. We don't have any closers at the end of games. Gilbert Arenas was our closer. He was our Mariano Rivera. When it came down, he was K-Rod for us. At the end of the game, he was gonna close out. You watch baseball, they pay for closers, don't they? We don't have one. We need one."

Today's game

WASHINGTON WIZARDS AT NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

When: 8 p.m.

Where: New Orleans Arena

TV/radio: CSN, AM-980

Probable starters: Wizards — F Antawn Jamison, F Andray Blatche, C Brendan Haywood, G Antonio Daniels, G DeShawn Stevenson. Hornets — F Peja Stojakovic, F David West, C Tyson Chandler, G Chris Paul, G Bonzi Wells.

Injuries: Wizards — F Caron Butler (hip), G Gilbert Arenas (knee), C Etan Thomas (heart surgery). Hornets — None reported.

Outlook: The Wizards snapped a two-game losing streak with a 110-95 victory over the Bobcats on Saturday. ... New Orleans had the best record in the Western Conference until it fell 98-89 to San Antonio on Saturday. ... Caron Butler did not make the trip to New Orleans yesterday and will miss both tonight's game and tomorrow's game in Houston, remaining home to continue rehab. ... The Hornets are one of the surprise teams of the season, going from a 39-win team a year ago to tied for first in the Southwest Division with a 37-17 record.

Mike Jones