- The Washington Times - Monday, January 27, 2003

How quickly things change.
Two weeks ago the Washington Wizards were posturing tough, talking of making a move into the upper echelon of the muddled Eastern Conference playoff race and allowing themselves to look months ahead at home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Not anymore.
Not after blowing a 15-point lead at home to the tired Minnesota Timberwolves. Not after losing four of their last five games.
And especially not with the schedule loading up with teams better than the Wizards both on paper and in reality.
Beginning with tonight's game against Phoenix (26-18), perhaps the most surprising team in the league, the Wizards (21-23) will face New Jersey and Milwaukee in back-to-back road games on Wednesday and Thursday, then return home to face an up-and-down New Orleans team some still think is good enough to represent the Eastern Conference in the finals.
When the dust clears, the Wizards' three-game losing streak could stand at seven games before they get any schedule relief when horrendous Cleveland comes calling in the last game before the All-Star break next week.
Coincidentally, it was this time last season when the Wizards went into overdrive to win five consecutive games to go into the break 26-21.
But with so much at stake a year later, uncertainty abounds about this team's frail psyche.
"You have to pull together," Wizards coach Doug Collins said in the aftermath of the Minnesota debacle in which Washington blew its halftime lead to lose 97-89 on Saturday night. "You have to form a fabric. You can't come apart like that so easily. It just seems like the least little bit of adversity, a team makes a little bit of a push at us, and we don't have anything to hold it together."
The Timberwolves outscored the Wizards 31-16 in the third quarter to tie the game, then ran past the Wizards in the fourth as if the home team were playing in concrete Nikes.
In the fourth quarter the Wizards had zero assists and committed seven turnovers resulting in 14 Minnesota points. The Wizards failed to score off any of the Timberwolves' three turnovers in the quarter, and Washington made just five of 17 field goals (29 percent).
Michael Jordan said the Wizards looked more like a bad team that had just broken training camp than a team with playoff aspirations, something they probably shouldn't be too concerned with at this point. If the playoffs started today, the Wizards, owners of the ninth-best record in the conference, would be at home wondering whether LeBron James would be one of their teammates next season.
"I just don't know what happened to us at halftime. The energy was very high at halftime," Jordan said. "In the second half it was like we couldn't find it. I know it was nothing that we said at halftime that got us overconfident or complacent. It's baffling me right now."
As bleak as it looks, the Wizards are not hitting the panic button. After all, they already have weathered a six-game losing streak, and they have survived some players' early season disenchantment with some of the offensive schemes.
"I don't think we've regressed. I just think we need to stay together," point guard Larry Hughes said. "We need to stay focused on what we're doing and not let losses hurt what we're doing. We know we have a good team, but there are times when we are not on the same page and we don't get the job done. But we've got to keep working on it as a group. We know we have a good team. We're not by any means going sour."
They don't sound as if the recent woes have fractionalized the team, something that appeared to be a problem at one point. And even though Collins was as critical of the players Saturday as he has been at any point this season, he pointed the finger of blame at himself as well.
"I'm part of it," Collins said. "I'm on the same ship that they are. But this is not good enough from any of us. Losing has to get to the point where it hurts so much you do something about it. Losing is real easy. Winning is hard."
Especially for the Wizards these days.

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