- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 1, 2008

On Friday afternoon, the Washington Wizards took to the air for the first time this season. They headed to Michigan, where Saturday they will take on Detroit at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

The Wizards will face a familiar opponent with whom they share more than a few common denominators. Former Washington players Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton and Kwame Brown play for Detroit. Current Wizards guard Juan Dixon was with the Pistons last season. Wallace and the Wizards’ Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood played college ball at North Carolina. Hamilton and Wizards forward Caron Butler played for Connecticut.

Both squads have managed to keep their core intact for several seasons. And they’re the only Eastern Conference teams that have reached the playoffs each of the past four seasons.

The comparisons end right about there.

“The major difference is, they’ve kept their starting guys healthy, and we haven’t had our guys healthy,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said of Detroit, which has reached the Eastern Conference finals five of the past six seasons. “They [have been] one of the top teams in the league for a long time.”

And while the Wizards stumbled through a season-opening loss Wednesday to rebuilding New Jersey, the Pistons opened with an efficient victory against Indiana, another squad on the rebound.

For the Wizards, two days off followed the defeat. While normally they might prefer a shorter break so they could get the disjointed performance out of their systems, the extra day was a good thing, the players said. It gave Jordan, his assistants and players a chance to step back, examine and re-examine their performance, and polish the rough edges that cost them against New Jersey.

“Preparation is always good,” Jordan said. “I still prefer to see a rhythm of games [when] we’re going to play Saturday, don’t play again until Wednesday, play a back-to-back Friday and Saturday and then not play again until Wednesday. Players like to have the rhythm of play, practice, play, but hopefully the nonrhythm of games won’t hurt us and the practice will help us.

“You identify what you really need to practice on from the last game [and] you have to have to prepare for the next game. So it was a little bit of ‘Let’s continue to grow, build’ - yet prepare for Detroit, their sets, their strengths.”

In practice, the Wizards focused on better offensive rhythm - aided by crisper ball movement, properly executed rotations and pick and rolls to keep defenders off-balance - and remaining disciplined defensively.

“We know what they’re all about, know what they like to do,” Jamison said. “So for us, we just have to buckle down, can’t let the crowd get into it early, can’t let their guards control the game, can’t let their bigs outhustle us or get more rebounds - the typical game plan vs. Detroit. We know what’s going to be successful and what’s not going to be successful.”

The Wizards will need increased production from Jamison and Butler if they expect to contend with the well-balanced Pistons. Last season, the All-Star tandem combined for 41.7 points on 45 percent shooting and 16.9 rebounds. On Wednesday, they had 27 points on 31 percent shooting and 14 rebounds.

Jamison said the slow start isn’t cause for concern. The Wizards simply need to concentrate on all the minute details, and the rest will follow.

“That day, nothing went right,” Jamison said. “Shots went in and out, reboundingwise we didn’t get into a rhythm, defensively [we] broke down. There were a lot of things that didn’t go right at all, a lot of things that didn’t happen. But I’m not worried about it at all.

“The most important thing is getting that cohesiveness down that we need defensively and offense is going to take care of itself for myself and my teammates. It was just the first game, and it’s just a matter of us adapting to what we need to adapt to.”