- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2003

The Washington Wizards have reached a critical juncture of this season.

The Wizards (6-10) closed out November with a losing record for the 16th time in the past 18 full seasons. Injuries have sidelined last year’s leading scorer, Jerry Stackhouse, and this season’s top player, Gilbert Arenas, for an indefinite time.

And tonight the Wizards begin a tough eight-day road trip against the Midwest Division-leading Dallas Mavericks (11-6).

The good news is the Wizards still appear to have plenty of fight. As bleak as things look, the Wizards remarkably are only two games behind the Atlantic Division-leading Philadelphia 76ers.

Wizards coach Eddie Jordan says he’s not too concerned with standings because they can be misleading at this point in the season.

“If we’re three games up in the Atlantic and we’re not defending and we’re getting worse, we’re not executing, then you’re concerned,” Jordan said. “But if you see growth, you kind of turn a blind eye toward the standings. You can’t get despondent. You have to see positives, and we see some positives.”

The Wizards’ 80-69 loss to the Detroit Pistons on Saturday was notable for a number of reasons. It was the Wizards’ fourth defeat in five games and their eighth in their last 11. They scored a franchise-low 23 points in the second half, breaking a record for offensive futility that had stood for all of six days.

The lack of scoring is where the loss of Stackhouse and Arenas is felt the most. Stackhouse led the Wizards last season with a 21.5 average, and Arenas leads the team in both scoring (20.8) and assists (5.5) and is fourth in rebounding (5.1) this season.

The return of Stackhouse (knee surgery) and Arenas (abdominal strain) is uncertain. So the Wizards are searching for players to pick up the scoring — in a hurry.

Jordan knows a lot of points will come from guard Larry Hughes but added, “We’ll take them from anywhere, not just Larry.”

Against the Pistons, often-inconsistent center Brendan Haywood helped fill the void and the scoring column. Haywood, who was benched earlier this season for uninspired play, had an out-of-body experience against Detroit, finishing with a career-high 23 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. He was averaging 4.5 points and 5.4 rebounds before that game.

“Maybe it’s a breakout game,” Jordan said. “He should draw a lot of confidence from it. It was very, very rare. I haven’t seen it the last couple of years watching him on tape. I don’t think his teammates have ever seen it. Maybe it was divine light. Will it come back? Will it come back again? Let’s see.”

Whatever it was, Haywood sounds emboldened. Recently he has seen his minutes go to backup Etan Thomas. Thomas missed the Detroit game with the flu. Thomas, unlike Arenas, will make this trip.

“We’re all trying to play hard,” Haywood said. “We know we can’t use our injuries as an excuse. We’ve still got to be men and do our job.”

Haywood said he got comfortable on the court with the extended minutes and hinted that was the key to his stellar effort against Detroit.

“For once I got the chance to play through mistakes and stay out there,” Haywood said.

The Wizards could catch a break against Dallas, which might be without injured All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki (sprained ankle).

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