- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

As Antawn Jamison stood in front of his locker stall after a 97-90 setback at Chicago on Friday, the All-Star forward grimaced as he revisited the Washington Wizards’ sixth consecutive road loss, a setback that kept them winless as visitors in February.

“That’s the worst part about it, that we are struggling on the road,” Jamison said. “If you look at the elite teams in this league, they are winning games away from home. That’s what we have to do if we want to keep this rolling.”

March, the last full month of the regular season, will see the Wizards (31-24) play 10 of their 15 games away from MCI Center, though tonight they play host to a rapidly improving Houston team. Their last road victory was Jan. 24 at Cleveland.

“That’s why I’m pretty much looking toward April,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said as a joke following practice yesterday.

The Wizards have gone from a euphoric first half of the season to a new reality, one that finds them thrust into an ever-tightening race for the eight playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. And while the Wizards have been solid at home — going into last night’s games only Miami, owner of the best record in the conference, had more home victories than the Wizards’ 21 — their 10-16 road record is causing some concern.

Jordan was able to crack a smile because tonight the Wizards will get a huge injection of confidence — and defense — when guard Larry Hughes, out the last 20 games with a broken right thumb, returns to the starting lineup.

“I don’t want to get too uptight,” Jordan said. “We laid down the law on how we are going to play, and we have looked at what is ahead of us. Now it’s time to prepare for each game and to not really feel the pressure. It’s time to play hard and to help your teammates so you can make things easy for yourself.”

Jordan has been pointing to this stretch of games for quite some time, and he has been focusing his team on it as well. He has referred to certain stretches of the season as “thunderbolts,” times when the road wouldn’t be as smooth as it was earlier, and clearly one of those stretches has arrived.

After Friday’s home game against Golden State, the Wizards will play 10 of their next 12 games away from MCI Center. This will include five games in eight days against Western Conference teams, beginning Feb. 22 in Denver.

Jordan said he doesn’t expect Hughes to take long to get back to the form that had him averaging career highs in points (21.2), rebounds (6.1) and assists (5.3) through 35 games, as well as leading the league in steals (2.82).

But while Hughes’ return is welcome, the Wizards will have to play at least the next week without starter Jared Jeffries (deep thigh bruise) and Jarvis Hayes (knee tendinitis), who had been starting in Hughes’ spot.

Conversely, Juan Dixon, the team’s top scorer off the bench (8.8), will be eligible to come off the injured list Saturday in Charlotte. Also, Kwame Brown looks to be close to recovered from his foot injuries and should help down the stretch.

“This is a first-time experience, and who is to say how we are going to react?” Jordan said, commenting on the franchise’s attempt to make the playoffs for the first time in eight years. “If we compete, if we don’t shy away from contact or we don’t take a back seat in the confidence department, then I think we’ll be OK. We just can’t have our confidence go down the drain thinking that things are too rough for us because guys are out.”

Notes — Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas was fined $7,500 yesterday for publicly criticizing officials Sunday following the Wizards’ 110-108 loss to Sacramento.

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