- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2005

INDIANAPOLIS — Health is suddenly more important than staying home for the Washington Wizards.

After falling to fifth in the Eastern Conference standings with three straight losses, the Wizards believe getting to the Eastern Conference playoffs later this month with as few injuries as possible is more important than the home-court advantage that comes with finishing fourth.

“Hopefully, we can get everybody back by the playoffs,” point guard Gilbert Arenas said. “It really doesn’t matter what happens in the regular season. We have to have everybody back when it counts.”

Starting center Brendan Haywood is nursing a broken thumb and will be evaluated when the team returns home this weekend. All-Star forward Antawn Jamison, who missed 11 games because of tendinitis in his right knee, is believed to be healthy but is playing on a game-by-game basis at least for the next week.

Sixth man Jarvis Hayes is likely lost for the season and probably the playoffs with a broken kneecap, and backup guard Anthony Peeler’s right knee is wracked with tendinitis.

Other teams in the playoff chase are handling their injuries at least as well as or better than the Wizards (41-33).

Tonight’s opponent, Indiana, is a perfect example. The Pacers (40-34) can knock the Wizards down to sixth place in the conference with a victory.

The Pacers have the longest winning streak in the conference. More remarkable is they still have a chance for a home-court edge in the first round despite the absence of both power forward Jermaine O’Neal (shoulder) and Ron Artest, perhaps the best defender in the league who was suspended for the season and the playoffs for his part in a November brawl with Detroit.

The Bulls (42-32), who hold the fourth spot, have won four of their last five games without leading scorer Eddy Curry. They have also lost starting small forward Luol Deng for the season with torn ligaments in his wrist.

Meanwhile, Washington, which has split its last 10 games, seems consigned to the idea that a healthy roster — which isn’t a given at any point from now to the end of the season — is the key to its success rather than getting home-court advantage. The Wizards are 25-11 at MCI Center.

“It doesn’t bother me. I’m not really worried about spots,” Wizards guard Larry Hughes said. “I’m looking to get there and get our bodies back. It doesn’t matter who we play, really. It’s good to have home court, this and that. But whether we have home court or not, we still have to go to the other arena and we have to win whether it’s home or away.”

The Wizards can’t afford to slide any farther, much less to the seventh or eighth spot — an unlikely possibility but a possibility nonetheless.

That scenario could have the Wizards facing Detroit or Miami, teams that are a combined 8-0 against them. Both teams average 106 points against Washington. Miami won its four games by an average of 12.5 points, and Detroit’s victories came by an average of 11 points.

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