- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 11, 2001

Washington Wizards coach Doug Collins emerged from practice yesterday at MCI Center feeling renewed, and with good reason.

After all, his young team learned something about itself in taking road games from Houston and Dallas, respectively, after dropping the first game of the Texas swing to San Antonio without the services of Michael Jordan.

After losing to the Midwest Division-leading Spurs, the Wizards played their best defensive game of the season in holding the Rockets to 35.3 percent shooting the lowest percentage they have allowed this season as the Wizards earned their first win in Houston since Feb. 8, 1993.

They followed that up with an even more impressive 102-95 victory at Dallas. The Wizards blew a 21-point lead in the third quarter but managed to shut the Mavericks down late to hold on for the win.

The performances led Collins to make a proclamation that not everyone is going to believe. That doesn't bother the coach as long as the Wizards, winners of four of their last six games, believe.

"I think we've begun to turn [the corner]," Collins said yesterday. "I break it down into five-game segments. During these next five games, if we can find a way to win four, we've put ourselves right back in the thick of the playoffs race. Through an eight-game losing streak, we have hung together. Guys know that and I think they sense it because the level of our practices have picked up. They are starting to feel better about themselves. I know we've turned the corner there. Now we've just got to keep winning games."

This may seem a bit of a stretch, but Collins does have a point. The Wizards (7-12) have rebounded from that eight-game skid and survived numerous injuries including the ailing right knee that kept Jordan out of the San Antonio game. And, perhaps because the Atlantic Division is so bad, the Wizards, who play at Memphis (5-14) tonight, are not in the dire predicament they seemed destined for about a week ago.

Two reasons for their resurgence include the improved play of guard Tyronn Lue, acquired as a free agent this summer, and rookie center Brendan Haywood. Both players have had stints on the injured list this season, but both are starting to make contributions that Collins expected from the beginning of training camp.

"The growth of Ty Lue, Hubert Davis being back, and the growth of Brendan have really given us some depth and some other weapons," Collins said. "We now have some flexibility now that we did not have at the beginning of this season and it's paid some dividends for us."

Lue, activated from the injured list in late November, has improved his outside shooting, and he's pushing the ball upcourt and defending better. He came off the bench to score 12 points, hand out five assists and record a pair of steals against Dallas. Two nights earlier against Houston, Lue came off the bench to contribute nine points and five assists.

Collins said the five games Lue missed due to strained ligaments in his right hand last month allowed him to get a better grasp of the team's offense and defense.

"I think that in the five games he was out, he probably grew more watching than when he was playing," Collins said. "Since he's come back he's had a whole different feel. He knows I want him to be aggressive and I want him to attack. I want him to give us a different dimension than Chris Whitney gives us, and he's doing great. His on-the-ball defense has been great and he's hitting big shots for us. This is the Ty Lue that I knew would be here."

But for the moment at least, the play of Haywood has been the team's biggest surprise. A legitimate 7-footer, Haywood completely changes the way teams attack the heart of the Wizards' defense. And even though he has appeared in just seven games torn ligaments in his left thumb forced him out of 12 he is clearly the most skilled center on the roster. Against Dallas, Haywood made all but one of his nine shots, finished with a career-high 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds.

"He is continuing to mature," said Jordan, who practiced yesterday. "He's cutting off penetration, he's rebounding, he's finishing at the basket, he's blocking shots. That is a big plus for us right now. Let's just hope he continues to improve."

Jordan shook off a bad shooting night to score 15 points in the fourth quarter against Dallas, aching knee and all. But Haywood said it is important for him and the rest of his teammates to continue to play better so that the team won't be so dependent upon Jordan.

"I feel it's very important for everybody to step up so that it doesn't always have to be about Mike. When it has to be about Mike the whole game, that's when sometimes we settle for bad shots when things don't go well for him," Haywood said. "But when we take that pressure off of him and he's able to pick his spots, he can be very effective."

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