- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2002

It was Feb.7, and the Washington Wizards' locker room at MCI Center was alive. The music was pumping, and many of the players were giddy. Some were on cell phones making vacation plans; others were just enjoying the moment.
The Wizards had just beaten the Western Conference-leading Sacramento Kings to boost their record to 26-21. It was their fifth victory in a row, and the word playoffs was being tossed around for the first time in years.
That was just over two weeks ago, and the situation has changed mightily. The Wizards have lost five games including their last three. If Michael Jordan hadn't come up with a buzzer-beater against Phoenix last week, the dazed and confused team would be on a six-game losing streak.
The music no longer rocks the locker room, and the postgame euphoria that once permeated the team is a thing of the past. Something is missing, and everyone on the roster knows it.
Coach Doug Collins gave the team yesterday off so that the players could step away and come back refreshed hopefully tonight at home against the Miami Heat.
"If we don't turn it around quick, we're going to go home early, and I don't want that," center Jahidi White said. "I'm thinking the rest of the team doesn't want that. The same way we were playing when we were winning, we've got to [resume] that. We're starting to change our game around a little bit, and that's not how it should happen."
White, like most of the players, does not believe the Wizards became drunk on success in the first half. He just knows this is not the same team that tied the club record of nine consecutive victories.
"I'm not sure what it is," White continued. "Whatever it is, it's not what we had. We don't have what we had before the All-Star break. I think we have to go in individually and dig deep in ourselves during practice and regroup."
Collins believes the Wizards have hit the wall prematurely.
"Right now our guys are emotionally and physically on empty," Collins said. "That was a concern of mine coming back. My biggest concern now is, we've got to get revitalized. We're playing a step slow, trying to do too much on our own. We can't play that way. That's not how we win. We've got to somehow find some energy, and right now we're a very tired team."
In all fairness, the Wizards' schedule has been brutal over the last two weeks. Opponents have included the Los Angeles Lakers, who even without Shaquille O'Neal are the defending world champs. Sacramento has the best record in the league and has lost just once at Arco Arena. Detroit has found new life and is leading the Central Division. And New Jersey has the best record in the Eastern Conference.
However, the Wizards showed no energy in a 102-89 home loss to an injury-depleted Houston team that is having a lost season.
Losses to tough teams on the road are understandable. But if the playoffs are the goal, home routs by teams like the Rockets are inexcusable.
"We don't have that confident swagger," Popeye Jones said. "It seems like every time something goes wrong, we get a sour look on our faces. I think the biggest thing is that we're a team that has to have momentum and confidence, and right now we don't have that. … After we blew that 20-point lead and lost to the Lakers, it's been gone."
There are other, more tangible concerns as well. Jordan, who turned 39 Sunday, was forced to sit out the team's 97-90 loss at Detroit with a sore right knee. Also, the schedule continues to be vicious. After a 5-22 start, the Heat whom the Wizards will visit tomorrow have won 13 of their last 18 games to get in position for a playoff run in the lackluster East.
Jordan, held scoreless by Jason Kidd in the fourth quarter of the 93-82 loss to New Jersey, said this is not the time to panic.
"Every team is trying to get better, every team is trying to make the playoffs and every game seems like a playoff," he said. "This is not going to be any different. We've got to reach deep in ourselves and try to stay connected. We've gotten out of our roles. We've got to grind our way back into our roles so that we can play better basketball."


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