- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2002

Michael Jordan put the NBA on notice yesterday that performances resembling his last two outings games in which he bombed Charlotte and New Jersey for 51 and 45 points, respectively could be in their future.

"This is how I played all summer," Jordan said following practice. "When I hurt my ribs, it kind of put me back a little bit, and I had to fight uphill just to get to this point. It's tough when mentally you know what you're capable of doing. Now everything's clicking, and I'm very excited about that."

Jordan suffered a pair of broken ribs last summer when he took an elbow from Chicago's Ron Artest. Jordan was attempting to determine whether he would end his second retirement at age 38. That set Jordan back to the point at which many of his insiders said they thought the comeback would be thwarted. Even his personal trainer, Tim Grover, who also pointed to the tendinitis in Jordan's knees, expressed his doubts regarding Jordan's comeback.

But now the ribs are healed, the tendinitis in his knees easily his most pressing physical concern is in abatement and Jordan is back to working out with weights after abandoning that for weeks.

"Knock on wood," Jordan said regarding his leg strength. "Physically I'm trying to prepare myself and not overdo it. I'm making sure that I'm getting my treatment every single day. If they stay healthy, I'm pretty sure I'll have the same type of lift and explosion on my shots."

If this is the case, then it couldn't have happened at a better time. The Wizards are targeting Jan.19 as the return date for both Richard Hamilton (right groin tear) and Christian Laettner (broken leg). On that date the Wizards will play the Bulls at United Center, marking Jordan's first appearance in Chicago since he retired in 1998.

Since losing the two starters, first Laettner on Dec.14, then Hamilton on Dec.21, the Wizards have gone 7-2.

After a month in which the Wizards finished 11-4, matching their most victories ever in December, the schedule relents a bit. Friday's game with lowly Chicago comes following three gameless days, and Washington plays just three games between Jan.1 and Jan.11.

As Jordan has exploded over the last two games connecting on 37 of 70 field goals and 21 of 23 free throws his teammates have not just stood around and watched, something they did earlier that drew the wrath of both coach Doug Collins and Jordan.

Against New Jersey, when they ran Jordan around screens and picks set by the Wizards' big men, New Jersey's bigger players were drawn away from the basket. As a result, the Wizards placed four players in double figures in rebounding and crushed the Atlantic Division-leading Nets on the boards 62-30.

The Wizards also outrebounded the Hornets 46-37 just days after the Hornets ended their franchise record-tying nine-game winning streak on Dec.26. In that game the Hornets out-rebounded the Wizards 44-22.

"If you look at what they are trying to take away when Michael drives, they're trying to take away his passing lanes to Jahidi [White] and Brendan [Haywood]," said Popeye Jones, who grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds against the Nets. "That's creating more offensive rebounding opportunities for those guys because they're trying to take away the pass."

Offensively, the Wizards have become marksmen from 3-point range. Only San Antonio (41 percent) is shooting better from behind the arc than the Wizards (39.3 percent). This makes doubling Jordan even more risky, and it should only become more difficult when the Wizards return to full strength.

"I was talking to Chris Whitney, and it's almost like teams are saying, 'We've got to pick our poison' because we've got such great shooters with the way Whitney and Ty [Lue] and Hubert [Davis] are shooting the ball," Jones said. "Do you run and double and give up a 3-point shot? Or do you hope that Michael misses his jump shot? I think teams are deciding to take their chances and give up the 2-point shots."

Note Wizards reserve center Brendan Haywood was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for December.

Haywood's accomplishments last month included scoring a career-high 19 points and seven rebounds in a 102-95 victory at Dallas; 17 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks in a 91-81 victory over Memphis; and seven blocked shots against Atlanta that set a career record and tied the MCI Center record.

Memphis forward Shane Battier was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month.

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