- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

The Wizards are starting to look like a team just as the schedule is starting to bend in their favor.
The Wizards have climbed back to the .500 mark with a four-game winning streak, three of the four against quality opponents: San Antonio, Indiana and Boston.
This is how Wes Unseld, Doug Collins and Michael Jordan imagined it could be in preseason. This is what prompted the good feelings then and the sense of possibilities now.
The last week is how you rectify a season in the NBA; how you get things done.
You win a game at home to the Spurs even as Tim Duncan is having his way around the basket and David Robinson is acting frisky. You counter with the three-prong perimeter assault of Jordan, Jerry Stackhouse and Larry Hughes. You grow up a little bit right there and start to believe that this season can be more than just beating the dregs of the NBA and landing the last playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
A night after putting the Bulls in their inept place in Chicago, you win a double-overtime game over the Pacers, arguably the most talented team in the conference since Jordan's Bulls.
Then you beat the Celtics in a way that stokes the confidence. You beat them in their place in a game that could have gone the other way if Stackhouse does not score 37 points and hit one big basket after another in the fourth quarter.
It was Stackhouse against the Celtics. It was Jordan against the Pacers.
Wasn't this the idea originally? Isn't this the one-two punch that prompted all those giddy North Carolina references?
Jordan is picking his spots, seemingly filling whatever role is deemed necessary. He was a defensive stopper in Chicago, getting inside the head of Jalen Rose, frustrating the scorer at every turn, rendering him useless in the three quarters he was in the game.
Jordan busted out with 41 points against the Pacers, defying everyone, Collins included, going 53 minutes, because this game, perhaps more than most games in a regular season, meant something extra to a team looking to find itself. In Boston, Jordan was the consummate playmaker, within range of a triple-double, with 19 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.
Did you see that nifty backdoor pass from Jordan to Hughes in the third quarter? That one play underscored the growth of the team.
You don't build a basketball team with a couple of impressive acquisitions in the offseason. It takes time for players to see who is most comfortable where on a basketball floor, to see who might do what with a glance, a wink, a certain look. It also takes time for players to trust one another.
That pass from Jordan to Hughes probably would not have been completed at that time in the game early in the season.
Who knew then that Hughes, a 6-foot-5 guard, is sometimes more at ease around the basket than he is with the ball in the open floor? He might lead the team in rebounding one game. He also might run over a defender in a 3-on-2 fastbreak situation. He likes contact. He has some hang time, too. He is not a pure point guard, sometimes about a one-thousand-one count too late with the pass, but he is hard-nosed. He is a player, the team's most worthy complementary part to Jordan and Stackhouse.
This is the make-or-break month in the season for the Wizards. This is their time to enhance the won-lost record, buffering it against their mini-West Coast trip next month and the long one at the end of March. This is their time to make up ground on what appears to be the conference's second-tier playoff teams: Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Orlando.
Given the best-of-5 format in the opening round of the playoffs, with the first two games at the home of the higher seed, a meeting with one of those teams would be far preferable than a date with either Indiana or New Jersey. The Wizards can win on the road against the middle of the playoff pack, as they already have done in Detroit and Boston.
So their January is about playoff positioning, about recognizing the value of the sixth playoff seed instead of the seventh or eighth, about being more than a novelty item in the postseason.
The Wizards have every reason to think they can make January theirs. Eight of their remaining 13 games in the month are on Fun Street, starting tonight against the Bulls. There are only two back-to-back sets in the month.
The Wizards need about nine wins out of it. That would put them where they were after 47 games last season, at 26-21.

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