- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

Crunch time is upon the Washington Wizards.

It starts tonight when the Milwaukee Bucks, tied with the Wizards for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs at 30-31, make their second visit to MCI Center.

And after the Wizards get past the business of Michael Jordan making his last appearance in Madison Square Garden against the lottery-bound New York Knicks on Sunday, they will face Orlando (32-30), which also is struggling for its playoff life.

A lot is about to be learned about Washington's up-and-down basketball team.

"This is where you can say you kind of control your own destiny," guard Jerry Stackhouse said. "You're looking at games every night wondering, 'Did Milwaukee lose? Did Orlando lose?' This is a game where we can say we put a loss on [the Bucks]. And we can do the same thing with Orlando. But first things first. We've got to come in and play with that same sense of urgency that we've played with over the last couple of weeks, even though we haven't won all the games. We need to do it now."

The Wizards have lost games against teams that at one point looked like easy pickings, such as Miami, Toronto (twice) and Golden State. Nonetheless, they have stayed in the playoff hunt, even if they are no longer talking about homecourt advantage.

However, the playoff ramifications make it virtually mandatory that the Wizards beat both of these teams.

If the playoffs started today, Milwaukee would get the eighth Eastern berth ahead of the Wizards based on their better conference record (23-18 to 21-19). But at the end of the season, the first tiebreaker is head-to-head records, and the teams have split two games heading into their final meeting.

The Wizards trail Orlando 2-1 head-to-head, and Tuesday's game also is the final meeting of the season.

"We've got a big stretch of games here," Wizards coach Doug Collins said. "Not only are we in a head-to-head game with them, we only play Milwaukee three times this season. … So it's a very big game for us."

Unlike the Bucks and the Magic, who have made their two West Coast trips, the Wizards have a 10-day, six-game Pacific excursion awaiting them later this month. The Wizards are 9-19 on the road, and 11 of their last 16 games will be played away from home. Conversely, Milwaukee and Orlando have won 13 road games each.

"It would put us in a tough spot trying to make the playoffs by playing on the road," Collins said. "We want to make sure that we take care of our homecourt."

The Wizards can go a long way in that direction if they beat the new-look Bucks. Milwaukee reshaped its roster at the trading deadline when it sent Ray Allen, Kevin Ollie, Ronald Murray and either a 2003 first-round draft pick or two 2003 second-round picks to Seattle for Gary Payton and Desmond Mason, both of whom are starting.

Payton, a nine-time All-Star, leads the league in assists and averages 20.8 points. Teamed with Sam Cassell, Payton gives the Bucks perhaps the most potent backcourt in the league. However, the trade-off is that the Bucks are even more of a finesse team now.

"It's not a power team by any stretch of the imagination," Collins said. "They are one of the better shooting teams in the NBA. We're going to have our work [cut] out trying to contain them defensively."

That is going to put a burden on the Wizards' achy backcourt. Michael Jordan will be playing his second game after back spasms forced him from Tuesday's game with Toronto. Tyronn Lue, the regular starter, is out with a separated shoulder and won't be back until Sunday at the earliest. Juan Dixon has struggled lately and could be overwhelmed at times tonight.

To Christian Laettner, none of that matters. The Wizards must win, period.

"We're both fighting for the playoffs sometimes we're eighth and they're ninth; sometimes they're eighth and we're ninth," Laettner said. "It's a big game. We've got to win. If we want to make the playoffs we've got to win these games."

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