- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2004

Washington Wizards coach Eddie Jordan finally has a team healthy and strong enough — he hopes — to play well during one of the NBA season’s difficult stretches.

“We’re heading into the dog days of the season, right before the [All-Star] break and immediately after the break,” Jordan said. “Hopefully, because of the return of [Jerry Stackhouse] and Gilbert [Arenas], we can avoid [a letdown].”

As an assistant coach for two-time Eastern Conference champion New Jersey and a coach and assistant in Sacramento when the Kings were horrid, Jordan knows what can happen.

Usually, teams that have something to play for raise their level of play to make a run to the playoffs. But Jordan knows teams with records like Washington’s 14-33 are often thinking about summer vacation.

However, Jordan is optimistic the Wizards, who played their first game of the season Wednesday with marquee players Stackhouse and Arenas in the lineup, will gain momentum following the All-Star Game on Feb.16 and show their rebuilding project is heading in the right direction.

“For us, because we’ve finally gotten Gilbert and Stack back, this is in a sense the beginning of their season,” Jordan said. “So we should avoid that letdown period. We should be energized while other teams are going through a little bit of a down time.”

Stackhouse, last season’s leading scorer (21.5 points), missed the first 45 games following surgery on his right knee. Arenas, whom the Wizards signed to a six-year, $64million contact, returned to the starting lineup Wednesday against Memphis after missing 26 games because of three stints on the injured list with a severely strained abdomen.

Wednesday’s 103-101 loss to the Grizzlies marked the first time the two have played in a game together, a situation magnified because the Wizards agreed to pay the two slightly more than $82million combined.

Both players echoed Jordan’s sense of urgency following practice yesterday.

“No question we have to tighten it up in the second half,” said Arenas, who promised when he signed that the Wizards would be a playoff team. “For us, the challenge is to show what we could have been this season in the Eastern Conference. You can tell that the talent is there, especially in the backcourt. What’s going to be important for us is that we practice hard and show up to play.”

Unlike Arenas, Stackhouse never promised a playoff appearance. But Stackhouse recognizes the dynamics of a playoff team after being a factor two years ago in the Detroit Pistons’ first playoff appearance in 11 seasons.

“Not discounting this season but looking at next year, hopefully we won’t have these problems,” Stackhouse said. “I just think with it being me and Gilbert made it that much worse. But it really starts for us now and goes right through the summer. We all have to stay healthy; the young guys have to keep getting better. One thing that has happened with our injuries is you’ve been able to find out we have young guys like Steve Blake and Jarvis Hayes who can play.”

Told that the Wizards, despite having the third worst record in the league, were only 61/2 games out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Stackhouse laughed.

“You know,” he said, “crazier things have happened.”

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