- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 31, 2002

TORONTO — The Wizards opened the season with a splat inside Air Canada Centre last night.

Where was the team that fanned the flames of expectations in the preseason? Where was that dynamic attack, of Jerry Stackhouse, Michael Jordan and Larry Hughes? Where was the zest, the passion, the fire?

Check the calendar. Maybe it was February. Maybe it was one of those road games that gets lost in the scheduling.

This was ESPN's bad idea, the Wizards and Raptors, one ugly team to another.

This was a hard time on Lake Ontario.

Raptors 74, Wizards 68.

Don't print those playoff tickets in Tony Cheng's neighborhood just yet.

The Wizards are having communication problems. Coach Doug Collins drew up a play after calling a timeout in the first half. Tyronn Lue apparently had a better play in mind, the dribble-up-the-floor, fire-up-a-20-footer play. Clank. Lue then looked at Collins, as if to say, "Sorry. My bad. I ran my play instead of your play."

What an opening night for the new-look Wizards. They looked like the same old Wizards. They were ever dependent on the perimeter shot and ever lacking in the frontcourt. They nearly broke the hallowed 70-point barrier. Give them that.

Enforcers must age, too. Charles Oakley does not hit as hard as he once did. He incurred a flagrant foul after barely touching Vince Carter in the second quarter. Carter, who sometimes goes to the injured list if someone looks at him funny, was unfazed by Oakley's accidental introduction.

It was that sort of game. Forget it. Burn the tape. Pretend it never happened. Take two aspirin and drink plenty of fluids.

The Wizards are hardly where they hope to be in the spring. This is virtually a new team. Three newcomers were in the starting lineup, along with Kwame Brown and Christian Laettner. It is going to take a few months before Stackhouse, Hughes, Oakley and Bryon Russell have a solid feel for one another, before the Wizards find their level of competence, before this team's legitimacy as a postseason threat is established.

The Wizards barely established anything against the Raptors. The Wizards could not make a shot in the early going and trailed by 18 points midway through the second quarter. Lue missed an open layup late in the first quarter. It was merely one of many wayward shot attempts by the visitors. The Wizards converted only six of 24 field goal attempts in the first quarter. Visions of the 44-point loss at New Jersey last January must have been popping into the minds of the holdovers at that point. It was a good thing it was the one-note Raptors instead of the Nets.

It would be kind to say the Wizards were inept most of the night. Jordan missed an open-court dunk attempt late in the game, looking all his 39-plus years, and that was pretty much that.

Jordan stuck to the body-preserving script. He came off the bench and played 25 minutes. He steadied the Wizards in the waning minutes of the first half, hitting a couple of jumpers to keep the Raptors within reach. It was a momentary thing.

His is a reduced role, at least in the first half of the season. He is not inclined to like the adjustment, despite the alternative. He tried to be who he once was last season. He lost in a big way. Yet he wouldn't be Jordan if he didn't think he could test Father Time anew, in a slightly less confrontational way. He will fight this battle in his mind as the season progresses. He probably will fight Collins a time or two as well.

Collins is hoping to get Jordan to the All-Star break in good physical form, unlike last season. Along the way, Collins will have to assert this desire in the strongest language possible. This is no sprint of a season. It is a marathon. It is hard on the young and old alike, though harder on those nearing 40.

"Experience is the best teacher," Collins said before the game. "I don't think Michael wants to go through again what he went through last season. I just think that last season, he felt we didn't have a chance if he wasn't on the floor."

It is funny Collins should mention last season.

It was last season all over again for the Wizards. This was an anemic start to what is supposed to be a worthy season.

One game down, 81 to go.

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