- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2003

The Washington Wizards are viewing the rest of the season cautiously.
At this point, they have no other choice.
The team's inconsistent play has moved it up and down the Eastern Conference standings. Recently the Wizards have been dwelling closer to the bottom, out of the playoff picture. At 32-34 they are in eighth place and in the final spot for a playoff berth. The Milwaukee Bucks are a half-game back and hold a tiebreaker edge over Washington.
The Wizards' inconsistencies always seem to come out on the road. The team's 23 wins at MCI Center this season ties it with New Orleans for the fourth most home wins in the conference.
Unfortunately for the Wizards, if they hope to make the playoffs, they'll have to earn that berth on the road, where they'll play 11 of their final 16 games. The Wizards have just nine victories away from MCI Center.
Of course the Wizards' erratic road play does not sit well with them.
"It's amazing," coach Doug Collins said of his team's comfort level at MCI Center. "Our defense is better; this crowd has been great to us all year long and our guys really feed off of that. But as I said before, we've got 11 games left on the road. We've got to go out and win on the road."
The Wizards' last road victory came Feb.25 in Indiana. They're 2-10 in their last 12 road games, including losses to Chicago, Miami and New York, opponents with worse records than the Wizards and teams they need to beat in order to assure a playoff berth. In that stretch their two wins came against the rapidly sinking Pacers and the Los Angeles Clippers.
So what's the problem?
"I wish I could tell you," Jerry Stackhouse said. "You feel the energy that you have behind you with your fans, being at home with family and friends. We can go out and have some good games on the road but still we've got to get that swagger, that knowing that you can go into somebody's building and knowing that you can beat them. That's something that's marginal for us."
All eight of the teams ahead of the Wizards have won more road games than Washington this season, with Detroit's 17 being the conference's best.
It is hard to explain the Wizards' shortcomings away from MCI Center. Usually inexperience is the reason for a team's poor play on the road, but that's not the case with Washington.
The Wizards certainly have some young players. However, they have experience, playoff-tested veterans such as Stackhouse, Michael Jordan, Charles Oakley and Christian Laettner. And Tyronn Lue played a big role off the bench in the Los Angeles Lakers' championship run two years ago.
Earlier in the season, when the Wizards played their younger players more often, it might have been a legitimate excuse. However, Collins recently has committed himself to playing the vets.
"We've got a lot of veteran players so it's not like we've got a lot of young guys playing on the road," Collins said.
Although MCI Center doesn't have a reputation for being a tough arena for opposing teams in fact, the reputation around the league is that Wizards' fans come late and leave early the Wizards, to a man, suggest the building's energy and focus helps them.
"It's different than that atmosphere on the road," Stackhouse said.
However, the Wizards know, as do most NBA players, that a team can become closer and better prepared for the adversity by playing and bonding on the road.
"Most teams struggle away from home," Laettner said. "Most teams have a better home record. It's just that on the road you have to really come together as a unit and play as a team, be really tough and really resilient on the road. Hopefully we can start doing that the last few games here."
It's their only recourse.

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