- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Wizards have two essential players to assimilate into the lineup and 30 games left to negotiate.

The Wizards can entertain the vision of a 20-10 finish, assuming Larry Hughes reverts to form and Kwame Brown lends about 14 points and eight rebounds to the cause. As one of the genuine surprises of the NBA, the Wizards have achieved their initial hosannas without a full complement of players.

Of the five players on the cover of their media guide, Brown, Hughes and Etan Thomas have succumbed to the injury vortex. It was only before the All-Star break that Thomas began to show the first glimpses of his previous self this season.

Hughes was merely the most complete member of the Wizards until he fractured a thumb. His ability to defend the passing lanes was missed as much as his 21.2 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists a game. It was on defense that Hughes helped hide the team’s fragility there.

The Wizards do not play defense as much as they try to tolerate it, not unlike a child picking at the spinach of an otherwise scrumptious entree.

The Wizards talk a good defensive game. Then they go out and try to outscore the opponent. This has become their identity, the essence of who they are, no matter how much coach Eddie Jordan cites the need to be vaguely competent on defense.

Brown could help in that area, as the last line of defense that is sometimes filled by Brendan Haywood, who can be as fickle as the weather. Haywood has his good days and bad, and his minutes fluctuate according to his activity level.

Dead 7-footers Walking are hard to hide on the floor, which is why so many serve as decorative pieces on NBA benches.

Brown has a number of reasons not to be dead, starting with all the rest he has accrued this season. The uncertain hope is that he finally has recovered from his widely reported post-Doug Collins stress disorder, assuming the sight of Collins broadcasting the NBA All-Star Game in Denver did not resurrect all the bad memories of yesteryear.

It is time for Brown to start earning his keep and stop finding fault with the circumstances around him. Washington, so starved for an NBA winner, will love Brown if only he cares to love it back. He could ask Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, the two All-Stars not afraid to accept their shortcomings.

Arenas showed considerable maturity following his free-throw debacle in Orlando last month. He called the misses what they were instead of claiming there was a speck of dirt in his eye.

Arenas is delightfully human and spirited, full of promise and fun, as you would like to think all professional athletes could be. It is a fairly good way to make a living, let’s be honest.

You appreciate the athlete who intuitively exudes that, as both Arenas and Jamison do.

The return of Hughes and Brown promises at least a hint of an incrementally improved defense, an increasingly important element as the regular season grinds to a close and teams vie for playoff position.

Except for a West Coast trip next month, the team’s remaining schedule is favorable. Seventeen of the 30 remaining games feature opponents with losing records.

The Heat and Pistons have been appointed to meet in the Eastern Conference finals, and there is no reason to dispute that notion at this time, with the Cavaliers and Wizards positioned to be the best of the rest, if not the two teams fashioned to be the class of the conference in the years ahead.

Both the LeBron James-led Cavaliers and the Wizards are built to outlast the Heat and Pistons over time, and by then, in two seasons or so, Larry Brown could have made three more coaching stops.

The Wizards were mostly a joy up to the All-Star break. Now with the stretch run coming into view and help on the way, the Wizards live with a decibel-increasing exhortation:

Just play a little darn defense. Please.

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