- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Washington Wizards can end years of frustration and clinch the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 1997 by defeating the Chicago Bulls tonight at MCI Center.

“It’s a huge opportunity for this franchise, a chance for us to take a big step that we’ve been eyeing ever since training camp,” forward Antawn Jamison said of the Wizards (42-35). “The rest of this season is going to test our character and tell us what we’re made of.”

The Wizards are tied with the Indiana Pacers for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and also could clinch a playoff berth if the Pacers beat the New Jersey Nets tonight. Chicago (44-33) is the fourth seed and playing as well as any team in the league over the last month, but the possible return of starting center Brendan Haywood from a broken thumb would bolster Washington’s lineup.

As he has been all season, point guard Gilbert Arenas is the key to success for the Wizards because he can score at will or set up his teammates brilliantly, depending on the team’s needs of the moment.

Against the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday, Arenas finished with a season-high 13 assists and the Wizards matched a team high with 29 in a 119-112 victory that ended a season-high five-game losing streak. That night Arenas opted to pass rather than shoot as the Wizards assured their first winning season since 1998.

Arenas didn’t stick around after the game to discuss what prompted him to play more like Steve Nash than himself. But, after taking just nine shots against the Bucks, he spoke confidently following yesterday’s practice at MCI.

“Right now I’m on a high, and I don’t think I can be stopped,” said Arenas, who will face a stifling Bulls defense tonight. “If the rest of the players are not high you are not going to go nowhere. If one player feels like he is unstoppable and the rest of the players are dead in the water, you are not going anywhere. You have to get them the ball to make them feel good about themselves.”

So which Arenas will his teammates see tonight against the Bulls? Will it be the one who went for a career-high 44 points against Philadelphia in a losing effort last Saturday or the distributor who led them Monday while playing like a bona fide point guard?

“We’ll see how the game goes,” Arenas said. “If [my teammates] are scoring, I’ll keep feeding them. If they’re missing, then I’ll do me.”

Haywood had his fractured right thumb X-rayed and re-evaluated yesterday. The team’s regular center last played March 25, when he suffered the injury in the late stages of a 98-94 loss to the Los Angles Clippers. Since then the Wizards are 5-5.

One indication Haywood might play tonight came when he was fitted yesterday for a protective splint for his thumb. But he was noncommittal on whether he would be in the lineup against the Bulls.

“I felt good out there in practice today, but it’s a situation where we’ll have to see how everything feels tomorrow, and we’ll make a game-time decision on it,” Haywood said.

The Bulls have charged hard to the end of the season, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 1998. They have won 13 of their last 15 games, most recently dropping an 85-84 overtime decision to the Detroit Pistons on Monday.

Jamison says he still has his eyes on the fourth seed currently owned by the Bulls.

“My mind frame is, I want that spot,” Jamison said. “I don’t even know what sixth is — that’s not even in my vocabulary. There are five games left, and we have a goal that we want to accomplish.”

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