- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The bad stretch started with a blowout loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, after which the coach of the Washington Wizards questioned the integrity of his players’ effort. The stretch ended with a blowout loss to the mediocre Milwaukee Bucks, after which key players questioned the integrity of their teammates’ effort.

In between, the Wizards’ season hit bottom.

Wizards coach Eddie Jordan shifted to damage control yesterday as he addressed the feud that has emerged between forward Kwame Brown and guard Gilbert Arenas.

“Boys will be boys, and it happens with every team,” Jordan said. “I would think things have settled down. And a win will be like soap; it’ll clean everything up.”

But the feud, which began when Brown and Arenas criticized each other after the team’s 113-88 loss to the Bucks on Sunday and continued in public comments made Monday, only serves to mask the fact that the Wizards again are headed nowhere except the lottery.

Two weeks ago, the Wizards’ locker room was a happy place. Jerry Stackhouse and Arenas had rejoined the team after missing a combined 71 games because of injuries. Brown was beginning to show the talent that in 2001 made him the first high school player chosen No.1 in the NBA Draft. And the Wizards were playing their best basketball of the season, having won six of 11.

“After the All-Star break, people better watch out for the Wizards,” Stackhouse proclaimed after a victory over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Five games later, the Wizards (16-38) are in the midst of a string of embarrassing losses marked by listless defense, undisguised frustration and public feuding.

The Wizards have lost five straight games by an average of 22 points. During that span, only the Indiana Pacers failed to score less than 107 points against the Wizards, and only the Pacers have failed to shoot better than 53 percent from the floor.

The Wizards have lost a league-leading 26 games by 10 or more points this season. They have lost nine games — and four of the last five — by at least 20 points.

No one is concerned about the Wizards. Instead, comments like the one made by Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy following a 107-81 rout of the Wizards last week are appearing.

“Very few nights in this league is it easy,” Van Gundy said after a game his Rockets led by 34 points at one point. “Tonight, for some reason, it wasn’t as difficult as most nights.”

Jordan, the team’s first-year coach, appeared particularly despondent after Washington’s loss to Philadelphia. The 76ers, another team that doesn’t appear headed to the postseason, entered the final game of the first half having lost 11 of 14.

But the Wizards, playing their first game without leading scorer Larry Hughes, appeared uninterested in a 25-point loss that was as lopsided as the score indicated.

A day earlier Philadelphia had fired its coach, Randy Ayers, and was playing its first game under interim coach Chris Ford.

Some of the Wizards speculated that perhaps they were looking ahead to the second half of the season and failed to focus on the game at hand, an excuse that didn’t sit well with Jordan.

“This is an NBA game where you are getting paid well to play and people are paying good money to see you play, so saying that they were looking ahead to the break is insulting,” Jordan said. “If they were they should give their money back.”

But one week later, in a 120-98 loss to New Orleans in which the Hornets notched season highs in both points scored and field goals made (48), things looked the same.

“It’s sad, man,” Wizards guard Juan Dixon said. “I’m sitting on the bench at the end of the second half and I’m looking at the score, and I’ve never lost like this in my life. I look at the score, and a tear is about to come in my eye. That’s how bad it hurts.”

Jordan, who has four years remaining on his contract, has had to deal with a lot: the prolonged absence of his best players — Stackhouse, Arenas and Hughes — because of injuries and the five-game suspension received by Christian Laettner for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

Still, the Wizards did not really fall apart until the past several weeks — and things never appeared worse than after Sunday’s 28-point loss at MCI Center to the Bucks, who had lost seven straight games on the road.

Stackhouse was ejected during that loss after he heaved the ball into the stands in frustration. After the game Brown and Arenas publicly criticized each other.

“To me, it seems like guys are just going out to get numbers,” said Brown, who finished with six points and two rebounds. “We’re not passing. If you look at the little bit of wins that we do have, we have 20-plus assists. In games that we don’t care and all, we have one guy with OK numbers, but he’s shooting. We’ve got guys whining and complaining about offense, but that’s not basketball. It makes me sick.”

Arenas took exception to that.

“Everybody is getting the same amount of touches,” said Arenas, who finished with a team-high 21 points on 7-for-21 shooting, six assists and six turnovers. “If you ain’t converting, you ain’t converting, you know. Last time I checked I passed him the ball like six or seven times; he passed it to somebody else right under the basket. I don’t know where he’s coming from right there. I mean, I guess he didn’t have 20 tonight. I don’t know.”

Last year Jordan made his second trip to the NBA Finals as an assistant in New Jersey. He knows he won’t be making that trip this season, but he still keeps the faith.

“Hopefully we can come together where everyone says, ‘Wow, this is the right way to do it.’ That’s how hard you have to work. And if they believe it maybe we can build from that.”

Note — Stackhouse was fined $5,000 by the NBA for throwing the basketball into the stands against the Bucks. He was ejected from the game with 5:13 remaining in the third quarter. He was called for a foul while attempting to steal the ball and subsequently hurled the ball the length of the court and into the crowd.

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