- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

SALT LAKE CITY It wasn't easy, but Doug Collins put on his best face.
"This is something we have to regroup from quickly, very quickly," the Washington Wizards' coach said moments after Friday night's catastrophic loss to the Utah Jazz at Delta Center.
The Wizards up and down, hot and cold all season long won't get the opportunity to show that they've fully recovered from their worst beating of the season (109-77) until tomorrow, when they play host to Toronto. Friday's loss concluded a Western Conference swing that saw the Wizards (25-27) drop two of three games they beat the hapless Los Angles Clippers last Wednesday without leading scorer Jerry Stackhouse.
Stackhouse, who has missed five games with a groin injury, made the trip but returned home on a red-eye after the Clippers game for an MRI that turned up nothing. He'll practice before the Wizards return to the court against Toronto.
Without Stackhouse (22.5 points) the Wizards were nothing but fodder for the Sacramento Kings, who beat them by 19 points without injured superstar Chris Webber, and the Jazz.
Those losses, especially Friday's listless performance that saw the Wizards fall behind by 42 points in the second half, have left them with the eighth-best record in the Eastern Conference. They are now just a half-game ahead of Orlando (25-28) for the final playoff spot.
But perhaps more important and clearly more of a concern the loss left some questioning whether the Wizards have the fortitude to do what it takes down the stretch to earn a playoff berth.
"Maybe we got giddy because we beat the Clippers the other night, I don't know," Collins said. "That's sort of been our track record. We win a game and say we're good. But the bottom line is, we struggle anytime a team comes after us hard, with toughness. We struggle with those kind of teams."
That's exactly what Utah is. The Jazz have wily veterans Karl Malone and John Stockton as their leaders, and they run other players off hard cuts and screens that tend to make timid teams back down.
Against the Jazz, the Wizards were as timid as they've been all season. Some questioned whether the team gave the effort required to win a professional basketball game.
"It looked that way, didn't it," said Michael Jordan, who will turn 40 tomorrow. "That's a good way to describe it."
Granted the Wizards didn't have Stackhouse, an All-Star-caliber player. But what concerns Collins and others is the team's inability to compete night in and night out.
A little less than a month ago, the Wizards were talking about competing for homecourt advantage in the playoffs. But they are now a team sitting on the fence with an unforgiving schedule in front of them they still have to go West again and play teams like the Lakers, Portland and Phoenix that makes it more likely they will be in the running to add LeBron James or somebody other lottery pick to their roster.
"It's frustrating, but we're still young," said Bryon Russell, unwrapping the excuse the Wizards have used for most of the season. "We need to grow, but we need to grow fast. Time is running out. If we wait too long, we'll be going home in April."
What the Wizards need more than anything else is a consistent presence up front from one of their big men Brendan Haywood, Kwame Brown, Christian Laettner or Etan Thomas. But this might be asking too much for several reasons.
Laettner is past his prime and can't get it done every night. Brown and Thomas can't seem to earn the court time needed to do so. Haywood, who showed such promise last season, seems to have reached at least a temporary plateau.
This leaves the Wizards in the position of either pulling the trigger on a trade before Thursday's deadline or staying put, A league source said most of the trade interest throughout the league is in Brown and Thomas. However, a team source called a deal involving those two "possible but not likely." So, as it has always been, the dilemma is whether to build for the future or mortgage it away.
"We're a young team we bask in the sunshine a little bit more when we win and forget about the next game or the consistency that we have to play with," Jordan said. "We're obviously going to have to learn or do something to make it happen."

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