- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Despite the news that the Washington Wizards will be without leading scorer Jerry Stackhouse for perhaps as long as a week, that didn't prevent coach Doug Collins from significantly raising the stakes as well as the aspirations for the team.

During practice, Collins told his players who will play without Stackhouse due to a left groin injury he not only expects them to make the playoffs this season, but he now has his eyes on possibly getting home court advantage in the first round, which would mean finishing among the top four teams in the Eastern Conference.

"I just told our guys if we really want to have a goal for something it's not to just get into the playoffs, it's to push for something higher than that." Collins said. "Let's not just say, 'Let's get in the playoffs.' Let's push for something as high as we can be. I mean, let's go for home court. Let's really put ourselves under the gun and see what we're capable of doing."

With the Eastern Conference as weak as it is in comparison to the West, Collins' goal today does not sound unreasonable. With other teams in the conference struggling, the Wizards are in prime position to continue making up ground.

Their next four games, all at MCI Center, are against teams (Toronto, Orlando, Philadelphia and Denver) that are a combined 21-53 (before last night's games) on the road.

"I told them today these next four games are going to dictate in any way the course which our season is going to go," Collins said. "We've got four games, we're home and we've got to find a way to win all four of them. We can't be satisfied with anything less than four wins."

Michael Jordan, who says he will retire for good after this season, acknowledged the Wizards are playing better they have won six of their last seven games and that they should be looking to get more than just the eighth seed, which would mean a first-round meeting with the conference's top team. However, he also tempered some of the cavalier talk at MCI Center.

"I'd like to go out with a bang. I want to go deep into the playoffs. I want these kids to experience what it feels like to play meaningful games, when the crowd is going crazy and every possession means something," Jordan said.

But

"This is what it is, talk," Jordan added. "Until we get on the court and consistently beat teams that we may have to see, it's all talk. The thing about it is it's great conversation. We haven't had that in Washington, D.C., in some time."

The Wizards are fourth in the Atlantic Division, which defending conference champion New Jersey is beginning to run away with. But right now, according to Collins, is the perfect time for Wizards to take full advantage of what is going on in the division and make a move on slumping Philadelphia and Boston. The Sixers (19-18) and the Wizards are tied for the sixth-best record in the conference. However, Philadelphia has lost nine of its last 10 games and Larry Brown's team is in free-fall.

And Boston (20-16) is just 3-7 over its last 10 games (before playing at Houston last night), and the Celtics seem to have also taken a backward step this season. As for Orlando, if Grant Hill continues to be plagued by his re-occurring ankle injury, the Magic also will likely have to lower their expectations.

"We're right in the same echelon as those teams," Jordan said. "It's better that we can position ourselves as Coach says, we'll feel more comfortable on our home court."

After the Nets, Central Division-leading Indiana and Detroit, the three best teams in the East, Collins no doubt sees a conference where the fourth playoff spot would be up for grabs, and with good reason.

"Obviously I think the top two or three teams have distanced themselves a little bit. But from four through 10 there are a lot of teams packed in there," Collins said. "Whoever stays healthy, whoever can find ways to win on the road "

However, as light as the Wizards' schedule appears over the next week, it becomes a little more difficult to navigate minus the services of leading scorer Stackhouse (22.5).

Stackhouse first noticed the pain in his groin in the Wizards' loss to Golden State last Friday. It continued to irritate him at New York on Saturday. He was looked at by team physicians yesterday, and he is expected to have an MRI today.

"It's something that happened," Stackhouse said. "The doctor told me it's going to be a week. Unfortunately we've got a lot of games this week but we've got guys that can step up, we've got guys who are eager to play so I think we'll be fine."

Stackhouse's injury will move Bryon Russell into the starting lineup. Russell started earlier in the season before being replaced by Jordan.

Despite the injury, yesterday Stackhouse was also talking about the new goals the team has.

"It's discouraging because we felt that this is our opportunity to separate ourselves from those teams around the seven or eight number," he said. "We've got a new goal now. Being in the position we're in and seeing the teams that are around us, we have more of a goal of being one of the top four teams in the East as opposed to just being a playoff team. That's how we're thinking.

"This is a big week for us and it's still going to be a big week for us. I've got the utmost confidence that the guys in the locker room will step up and make it happen. Look for guys like Bryon Russell to step in and do big things for us."

Point guard Larry Hughes said he is completely on board with the new thinking that the Wizards should not be thinking about just squeaking into the playoffs. In fact, even when the Wizards were in the throes of a six-game losing skid that threatened to derail their season in December, Hughes felt that once the team with all of its new faces began to familiarize itself, things would begin looking up.

"The only reason why we were thinking about the eighth spot is because we were a team that just got together this year and has a lot of new faces," Hughes said of the Wizards, who have just seven players from last season on the active roster. "The goal was just to get in. But we feel like we're a good team that can do damage so now we're looking even higher."


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