- The Washington Times - Monday, January 21, 2002

CHICAGO Now that the pomp and circumstance of the visit to Chicago is behind them, Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards can turn their attention to more pressing matters.
Like their crucial pair of games in the next two days.
The Wizards' less-than-pretty 77-69 victory Saturday over the Chicago Bulls ended a four-game losing streak, but the victory was nothing to gloat over. The Wizards needed the Bulls to shoot an incomprehensibly bad 24.7 percent from the field to compensate for their own futility (22 turnovers, 36.9 percent shooting) to earn their first win in almost two weeks.
"The guys are relieved that we won the game," Wizards coach Doug Collins said yesterday after conducting a light practice at Hoops the Gym, where Jordan played most of his basketball before coming out of retirement. "We know that we didn't play well, but we played well enough to win the game. Obviously it was an emotional game from a lot of different standpoints. For us to come in here undermanned and find a way to win in an ugly fashion, we'll take it."
Ugly basketball won't do the Wizards (19-18) any good tonight when they face the tough Minnesota Timberwolves. Only the Sacramento Kings have won more games this season than the Midwest Division leaders (29-10). Minnesota is 17-2 at home and already talking about possibly dethroning the San Antonio Spurs in the division.
Equally as daunting is the jockeying going on for playoff positioning. The Wizards will play host to hot Philadelphia tomorrow. The 76ers (19-20), winners of four straight games and seven of their last 10, begin the week just one game behind the Wizards in the Atlantic Division.
"It's going to be a tough stretch," Collins conceded. "We had yesterday, and now we've got to go to Minnesota. We've got Philly at home, so it's going to be a tough stretch."
Collins is acutely aware of the Wizards' recent shortcomings. They are still awaiting the return of a healthy Richard Hamilton, whom they probably won't get back from a groin injury until Feb.1. And in a departure from the usual, Collins lately has become more concerned with the Wizards' inability to score rather than play defense. The 67 points they scored in a 44-point loss to New Jersey were just one more than the team's all-time worst effort.
"I'm concerned about us being able to score," Collins said. "At least we defended yesterday. But we've just been struggling to score. Very seldom are we going to be able to score 75 to 80 points and win. So I'm hoping this is some type of aberration. Hopefully it's going to go away."
Although the Wizards are not playing as well as they did when they strung together nine wins in a row and won 13 of 15 games, Collins is aware that this is perhaps the most challenging phase of the team's schedule. The four-straight losses have come against teams with a combined record of 108-46.
Thus, Collins doesn't feed the suggestion that the Wizards have struggled lately because of the distraction of Jordan's homecoming.
"Completely healthy we are going to struggle to beat Milwaukee, Minnesota, San Antonio and New Jersey," Collins said matter-of-factly. "Those teams are superior to us. So I don't want to say that we lost those games due to the fact that we were concerned about Chicago. But I do know that Michael knew this day was coming."
One palpable concern is Christian Laettner. Laettner, the starting power forward, returned to the lineup Saturday for the first time since breaking his left fibula against New York last month. By his own admission Laettner says he is not quite ready to return to the starting lineup after collecting four points and one rebound in 14 minutes against Chicago.
Laettner is likely to be reinserted in the starting lineup later in the week, at the earliest tomorrow's game against Philadelphia. Yesterday Laettner said his left leg is not a source of concern.
"I got a bad charley horse that's bothering me right now," Laettner said. "I'm not worried about my other leg. It's going to take me about five games to get up to speed."

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