- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2002

At this point in the season, the Washington Wizards were supposed to be in the final stages of writing the NBA's best feel-good storyline.

But that happy ending has been excised, at least for now. The Wizards have lost four games in a row and 13 of 16, tumbling in the span of a month from five games above .500 (26-21) to five games below (29-34).

The Wizards have lost Michael Jordan, who will be out for at least another two weeks following arthroscopic knee surgery, and their pulse is fading. It seems that the only people who believe the Wizards have a chance of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1997 are the men wearing Wizards uniform.

But even their optimism will be tested in coming days. That's because beginning tonight against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Wizards will play six games in nine days on their final West Coast trip of the season. The trip will either breathe life into the team or extinguish their chances at the playoffs.

Can you say crunch time?

"I would think so," coach Doug Collins said. "I have felt that it would take 41 wins to make the playoffs. We've got 19 games left; we have to win 12 if we are going to make the playoffs. So obviously, there has to be a sense of urgency."

There also has been a very palpable sense of collapse. The Wizards in recent weeks have folded defensively and shown an inability to close out winnable games.

Teams are regularly shooting at or around 50 percent against the Wizards, who have nobody capable of slowing down opponents' top scorers, particularly in the backcourt. Orlando's Tracy McGrady, for instance, had a career-high 50 points more than half of his team's total to lead the Orlando Magic past the Wizards.

On Monday in Washington's last game at MCI Center until March 26, Boston's Paul Pierce scored 16 of his game-high 37 points in the fourth quarter to hand the Wizards their fourth loss in a row. They did not double-team Pierce, and the players they threw at him Courtney Alexander, Richard Hamilton and Tyrone Nesby were little more than harmless speed bumps.

"Defensively, we have wavered in our ability to stop teams," Collins said. "You've got to be a team to get the defensive stops, and we have not been able to do that."

That won't cut it tonight against the Clippers, winners of six of the last seven games and eyeing the playoffs. And it just gets harder from there. Seattle the second stop is jockeying for better playoff standing. The next game is against Portland, which has retrieved what was a lost season by going 13-2 in the second half.

That's just the first three opponents. Lose them all and the Wizards' spirits will be devastated, their dreams of the postseason vanquished.

Still, the Wizards feel they can salvage the season.

"Man, there's not too much to talk about; we've got a job to do and we don't have any other choice," Alexander said. "We realize what we have to do. Everyone knows where the problems are. It's up to us to fix them and get some wins."


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