- The Washington Times - Friday, December 14, 2001

OK, we admit it: Even if he teams with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Michael Jordan won't lead the Washington Wizards to the NBA Finals.
In fact, the playoffs might be a stretch.
And no, we don't expect Jordan to top the league in scoring. Or shut down everyone who's anyone among the game's young guns. Or lift off from the foul line for a tongue-waving, rim-shaking slam, set to the strains of R. Kelly.
(We'll leave that for "Space Jam 2." In IMAX, of course.)
Rather, all we ask is that Jordan be productive. And occasionally spectacular. Which he has been. On both counts.
As such, we have to wonder: What's with all the MJ bashing?
Ever since Jordan's semi-lackluster comeback debut in New York his first game action in three years His Airness has been pilloried by an utterly unforgiving press, the same frothing bunch that used to treat his every move and utterance with Papal reverence.
Too old. Too slow. Painful to watch. A shade of his former self.
One writer even asked Jordan to re-retire immediately, both for "the good of the Wizards and the good of his own name."
For the good of his own name?
This isn't Fat Elvis. Jordan's return has been exciting, intriguing, sometimes disappointing and anything but embarrassing.
The man is 38. He's playing on one leg. With a band of journeymen and greenhorns that have more in common with the current Chicago Bulls than Jordan's dynastic edition.
So he's no longer the smartest kid in school. Big deal. At the quarter-point of the season, he's still an honors student.
"He's still a great player," Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich said.
Herein, our mid-semester report card:

Skills: B+
If Jordan's skills have visibly slipped and they have it's largely a testament to his former greatness.
After all, he's still pretty good. (And, yes, he can still dunk.)
Granted, the older Jordan is not the Jordan of old. His elevation is merely mortal. His jumper is often flat and erratic, as was the case in a 5-for-26 stinker against Seattle. And his forays to the basket are fewer and farther between (just 5.8 free throw attempts a game, a career low).
Two times this season, Jordan has squared off against Boston's Paul Pierce in crucial late-game situations. Both times Pierce has blocked Jordan's shot.
Yet while Jordan has struggled from the floor his .400 shooting percentage is a career low he's still the No. 9 scorer in the league at 23.9. And he has found other ways to contribute.
There's the quick hands on defense (1.7 steals). The yeoman's work on the glass (6.7 rebounds). The sharp eye for the open man (5.4 assists).
Taken together, those numbers equal or better Jordan's final season in Chicago (1.7 steals, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists). Which, as you may recall, ended quite nicely.
"He's our best defensive player, our best post player and he creates shots for other guys," Wizards coach Doug Collins said last week. "Forget about his points."
And don't think Jordan has completely lost his touch. Twice last week, he looked like the late-game assassin of yore, scoring 10 fourth-quarter points against Houston and 15 against Dallas to seal a pair of victories.

Smarts: A
Dion Glover couldn't help himself. Matched up against Jordan during the Wizards' second game of the season, the third-year Atlanta guard repeatedly bit on a series of ground-bound head fakes that wouldn't be out of place at the local YMCA.
"[I was jumping] 10 feet in the air when he uptakes," Glover said of Jordan, who scored 31. "I knew he would do it. I knew I would go for it, and I did."
This is the new MJ, playfully dubbed "Floor Jordan" by analyst John Thompson. Thicker and less explosive, he has become a thinking man's player, a master of guile and positioning.
Without the ball, Jordan uses screens as well as anyone. With it, he relies on dekes and up-and-unders to get open looks. He has grabbed a number of rebounds without leaving the ground.
On defense, Jordan compensates for his reduced lateral speed with quick hands and keen anticipation in the passing lanes. Against Dallas, he snatched a game-high four steals, swiping a crosscourt pass and stripping another ball from Adrian Griffin.
"I don't care if he can't jump out the building any more," Glover said. "He was so far ahead of us mentally. I've never seen a guy that smart on a basketball court."
Small wonder, then, that the Wizards often employ Jordan as a point forward. Against Memphis on Tuesday, Jordan collected nine assists in leading Washington to its easiest win of the season.
"He thinks the game through now and makes the other guys better," Grizzlies forward Rodney Buford said. "And they feed off of it."

Health: C-
Ouch. After 13 remarkably durable seasons not counting a broken foot in 1985-86 Jordan has discovered the dirty little secret of basketball middle age: What the mind can conceive, the joints cannot always achieve.
Already battling an achy wrist and tendinitis in both knees, Jordan hyperextended his right knee during a preseason game against Boston. Chronic soreness and swelling have since diminished his explosiveness and limited his practice time.
The inflamed joint also forced Jordan to sit out the Wizards' 103-88 loss to San Antonio on Dec. 4, the first game he has missed with an injury since 1993.
"My body is sending me messages," Jordan said. "And I need to listen."
Though a recent MRI revealed no acute damage to Jordan's knee, the condition isn't likely to get much better. Rest is the only cure, and Jordan isn't getting much at 36.8 minutes a game.
"It could be as the season goes on, he doesn't play in back-to-back games," said Collins, who would like to get Jordan down to 32 minutes or less a game. "It could be that we have to sort of pick and choose the games he plays.
"I know Michael would play 48 [minutes]. But I can't [let him], because then we won't have him for the season."

Drive: A+
With six championship rings and five MVP trophies to his credit, Jordan has nothing left to prove.
His effort, however, suggests otherwise.
In a home overtime win over Boston on Nov. 24, Jordan logged a season-high 45 minutes, playing to the point of visible exhaustion. A week later against Orlando his fourth game in five nights he refused to come out of the game despite his balky knee.
"I know he's got will and determination and all those things, but I knew he was playing on one leg," Collins said after finally pulling Jordan with 3:50 left. "I wasn't going to let him do that."
Jordan still hates losing, too. Following Washington's embarrassing 95-74 road defeat by Cleveland on Nov. 27, he blasted himself and the Wizards.
"I think we stink," Jordan fumed.
Jordan was equally blunt during the fourth quarter of the Dallas game, telling teammates that they were going to win the game and that anyone who disagreed should get, well, the heck off the floor.
"He let guys know that this is our time to win," Hamilton said. "That's what MJ does."

Leadership and team impact: A
Jordan's attitude has been contagious. During a timeout with 11 seconds left in Wednesday night's 82-80 victory over Miami, the Wizards huddled around their bench, up a basket and in dire need of a stop.
Moments later, they stifled a drive by Eddie Jones, then forced LaPhonso Ellis into a desperation trey that missed at the buzzer.
"Since I've been here, we've let a lot of leads slip away in the fourth quarter," Hamilton said. "[Tonight] we all looked into each other's eyes and said, 'We're going to win this game.'"
Sound familiar?
"I brought the guys together and said, 'We're on a string. That means that we're going to have to cover each other's tail,'" Jordan said. "And we did."
After a 2-9 start, the Wizards have won seven of 10, putting them in the middle of the jumbled Atlantic Division. And despite their sub-.500 record, they genuinely believe they can win.
Better still, they actually can thanks in no small part to you know who.
"You could say that [Jordan is] beneath the level of what he did earlier, when he was leading the league in scoring," Wizards assistant coach John Bach said. "But frankly, I think his help has been immeasurable."
At the very least, it's worth extra credit.

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