- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2002

The Wizards have become relevant in the equal-opportunity Eastern Conference following their unlikely 11-4 record in December.

Michael Jordan has found his 38-year-old legs, and the team is playing with energy, purpose and confidence, especially at home.

The Nets, holders of the best record in the conference, were unable to stave off the Wizards in the second half on New Year's Eve, mostly because Jordan felt frisky enough to score 22 consecutive points during one stretch of the game. By the time Chris Whitney hit back-to-back 3-pointers late in the game, the Nets were a thoroughly beaten outfit, down 21 points.

It was the Wizards' fifth consecutive victory at home, and the fourth in a row in which the issue was decided by the fourth quarter. This is how good teams treat visiting teams. This is how teams that aspire to be somebody in the postseason are required to act.

Hard as it is to believe, the Wizards are starting to discover that they have nothing to fear from what passes as the elite teams in the conference. The Nets, with Jason Kidd distributing the basketball, are not accidental contenders. They might as well think the conference can be theirs.

There is no real order in the conference, no dominant team, only a plethora of teams with questions, flaws and suspects.

The Bucks are still trying to figure it out, still uncertain in tight games, still unable to be the team they could be. They have the best personnel in the conference, particularly with Grant Hill on the shelf again in Orlando. They also have the most temperamental personnel, inclined to shoot or jaw its way out of a game.

The Celtics are two players, Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, and a whole lot of doubt.

With Rick Carlisle's prodding, Jerry Stackhouse has learned to pass the ball in Detroit. As beneficial as that has been, the Pistons remain a limited bunch, as their recent trip West revealed. Like the Nets and Celtics, the Pistons are bereft of a playoff pedigree, likely to be serious only to a point. The 76ers are stuck in the free-fall mode, the Pacers stuck between the old and the new. Who's the best in the East? Who knows?

All this bodes well for the Wizards, no less modest than all the rest. They are winning at home, they have been resilient on the road, and they have pulled themselves back from the abyss following their eight-game losing streak in November. Their capacity to compartmentalize the inevitable bad breaks, bad calls and bad nights has resulted in a newfound swagger after 30 games.

The Wizards showed up only in body in Indiana last Thursday, their second road game in two nights. It happens. The Wizards absorbed the 27-point spanking and then delivered a beating to their next two opponents, the perfect response.

Jordan, of course, led the way, as only he can, with 51 points against the Hornets and 45 against the Nets. He is too old to score 96 points in two games, too indifferent with his impeccable legacy. He just will have to live with it.

Washington is darn certain it can live with it, and live well, to be honest, following a generation's worth of missteps. There is not just hope on Fun Street. There is a growing intrigue with where the season is heading.

The Wizards' schedule turns favorable this month, with eight of their 13 games at home, starting with the much-anticipated arrival of the Bulls this Friday. Do you think Jordan might be in the mood to drop 50 points on his old team and former teammate, Bill Cartwright, the newly appointed coach of Jerry Krause's nightmare?

The Wizards went into the season not knowing who they were or their place among the NBA's 29 teams. They couldn't look at a game on their schedule and say, "That one should be ours." Now they can, beginning with Jerry's kids.

Now the Wizards can embrace the notion that they are only going to become stronger as the season progresses. Jordan is regaining pieces of his game, and Richard Hamilton and Christian Laettner are on the mend, and the team has forged a certain level of competence.

Game by game, the bad, old days of the franchise are being purged.

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