- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2002

TORONTO Moments removed from the final game of a West Coast trip that saw the Washington Wizards improbably win half of their six games, coach Doug Collins sat in a corner of the visitors' locker room at Salt Lake City's Delta Center looking like a man in search of a friend.
Spent after watching the Wizards drop a 94-79 decision to the Jazz in a game in which he got into a shouting match with burly Utah forward Karl Malone, Collins had earned some quiet time. He could take solace in the fact that the Wizards (32-37), with 13 games remaining in the regular season beginning with today's contest at woeful Toronto, are still playing for something meaningful the team's first trip to the playoffs in five years.
Collins, slouched in the metal folding chair as the last of the Wizards straggled to the bus, already was looking ahead and trying to focus his weary mind on the final three-plus weeks of the season.
"We need some things to break our way," Collins muttered. "But we've really got to make something happen."
The Eastern Conference is tighter than it has been in a long time. In all likelihood, the final eight playoff spots, and particularly the final three, won't be decided until the last day of the season. If the playoffs started today, the Wizards would be on the outside looking in. But they don't, and the Wizards, ninth in the conference, are one of six teams still alive for the East's last two seeds.
However, recent occurrences in the East have left the remaining games less daunting than they seemed before the Wizards left for the West Coast.
Philadelphia's Allen Iverson suffered a broken hand Friday and is out at least until the end of the regular season. Without Iverson this season, the 76ers, who had been playing well lately, are winless. The Sixers have two games scheduled with the Wizards.
There are also two games remaining with faltering Milwaukee, where the players appear to be tuning out coach George Karl. And Toronto (31-38), which has won only twice since the All-Star break, is now without Vince Carter (knee) for the rest of the season.
Perhaps that is why Michael Jordan, who was excused from practice yesterday to attend his aunt's funeral, remained calm following the Utah loss.
"We still have plenty of time," said Jordan, who will play today. "We are a young team, and we are learning. We are going to need to be a little more connected in crucial parts of ballgames. I think we are capable of doing it. We have to believe in it and certainly have to utilize each others' talents and not expect me to carry the whole team."
That is why Collins is so concerned with today's game. Victories here and at MCI Center on Tuesday against a Denver team they trounced by 32 points on the road would allow the Wizards to establish momentum for the stretch.
"Hopefully, we can find a way to win the Toronto game so we can get back into the swing of things," Collins said. "Every loss by us is so costly. We're just sort of hanging on by our fingernails right now."
Ideally, Collins wants to see someone other than Jordan, who is still shaking off the rust, take the Wizards over the top. Jordan, who missed 12 games following arthroscopic knee surgery Feb. 27, has made six of 21 shots since his return and is still coming off the bench and playing limited minutes.
"You can see Michael's very rusty; he hasn't had any kind of practice or anything," Collins said. "It's amazing to me he can do what he's done being off three weeks."


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