- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2002

For the first time in years, the Washington Wizards begin the second half of the NBA season jockeying for playoff position in a wide-open Eastern Conference race rather than playing out the string. That quest resumes on the road tonight against the Los Angles Lakers.

"Our guys, I hope, have started to understand that the season really takes a turn now," coach Doug Collins said before the All-Star break. "They're going to be asked to work even harder, battling fatigue, physical and mental. There were some ups and downs in the first half, but it was really a nice start for us. Now we've got to pick up and stay strong to the end."

During the season, Collins has talked often about the schedule sometimes yielding an opportunity through luck or coincidence, and tonight's date at Staples Center is just that. The Lakers placed center Shaquille O'Neal on the injured list right before the All-Star Game with an injured toe.

Now the Wizards face a Lakers team led by Kobe Bryant, who is coming off his MVP performance in the All-Star Game. Bryant was booed in Philadelphia, his hometown, and no doubt will be up for the Wizards and Michael Jordan, one of his boyhood idols.

The contest begins a three-game Western Conference swing that also will see the Wizards (26-21) play Sacramento, which owns the league's best record at 37-12 but last week lost to the Wizards, and Phoenix.

"That's the start of a crucial stretch for us," Wizards shooting guard Richard Hamilton said. "We can't afford to go backward after all the progress we made in the first half of the season."

Much of that progress has come with Hamilton's emergence as a budding star. Since his return from a groin injury that sidelined him for 17 games, the Wizards are 5-0. They are 16-8 overall with him in the lineup, and they have won 13 consecutive games in which Hamilton has played.

In addition, Hamilton appears to be rounding into shape. Of his last five games, Hamilton's 33-point effort against the Kings last Thursday was his best since his return.

The Wizards also will regain Hubert Davis, who has become a key player coming off the bench. But starting in place of Hamilton finally wore down Davis, who has missed the last five games with a viral infection.

Christian Laettner, out with a deep thigh bruise, also could be activated on this trip.

"It will be good for us to get all of our parts healthy again, because we're going to need them," Collins said.

Collins and his players know that they will face a sterner test in the coming weeks. There will be an even longer trip west in March, and 19 of the Wizards' remaining 35 games are on the road.

By the same token, these clearly aren't the same Wizards that fans are used to seeing at this point of the season. They are five games above .500 on Feb. 12 for the first time since the 1978-79 season, when they were 37-16. Last season they were 12-35 at the break and won just 19 games all season. This season's team, with Michael Jordan, won its 19th game 84 days earlier.

"It's still going to be an uphill fight," Collins said. "We've got to get and stay healthy and hope things go our way."

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