- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

DENVER — The last time the Washington Wizards played on this side of the Mississippi, their dreams of a playoff berth came crashing down.

That 2-4 trip in late March is remembered more for Kwame Brown cursing then-coach Doug Collins, Kobe Bryant scoring 55 points in a rout by the Los Angeles Lakers and a horrible concluding loss that saw the Wizards score just seven baskets in the second half against Denver.

“Yeah, that was a horrible trip for us,” Brown said. “That might have been the beginning of the end for us. If you look at us now, we’re a completely different team.”

Brown is right. Although the Wizards have played just 20 games since that 88-72 loss to Denver — their first here since Feb.5, 1997 — there isn’t a single player from that team’s starting lineup who will start tonight.

This is just one of several reasons why the Wizards (5-6) are approaching this trip — which will see them play Denver, Seattle, Portland and the Lakers — with optimism. It also doesn’t hurt that they begin the stretch with a two-game winning streak.

“I think it was very important for us to get some momentum going into this trip,” coach Eddie Jordan said following Wednesday night’s 106-95 victory over Cleveland. “The road gives us a chance to get out and bond. We’re looking at this saying there are some winnable games here. Let’s get them.”

That there are. With the exception of the Lakers — who added Karl Malone and Gary Payton via free agency — this trip doesn’t appear that daunting.

Denver and Seattle are off to decent starts, but neither should strike fear in the Wizards. And Portland, despite its talent, is still perhaps the most dysfunctional professional sports team in North America.

Leading Wizards scorer Gilbert Arenas (20.8), acquired via free agency from Golden State, says he has been looking forward to facing Western Conference teams in their buildings. And unlike last year, when the Wizards were one of the most un-athletic teams in the NBA, Arenas feels this team is built to play the running game favored by Western Conference teams.

“These should be games we like,” Arenas said. “You know you’re going to see games that end up 120-110. The thing we have to do is play defense, because the West doesn’t play any defense. We’re going to defend, [but] we’ve just got to try to outscore them, too.”

Arenas said the Wizards are starting to get more comfortable with one another, both on and off the court. He added that the challenge of being on the road will be a chance for them to grow even more.

“When you’re on the road, the odds of you winning the game are slim,” Arenas said. “It’s just different. That’s the time when you have to be a tighter unit, because things can easily go the other way out there, not your way.”

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