- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Coach Eddie Jordan, who has led Washington to its best record at this point in the season since it went to the NBA Finals in 1979, would rather look ahead to the final 13 games than in the rearview mirror.

But not reviewing what the Wizards (39-30) have just accomplished over a five-game Western road trip — and in the month of March in general — would be to discount the portion of the season Jordan talked about as far back as Christmas as being the key to the Wizards’ playoff run.

Minus the services of All-Star forward Antawn Jamison and starting center Brendan Haywood, the Wizards still won at Portland on Monday night to finish the road trip with a winning record and complete a 12-game stretch in which they played just twice at home with a 7-5 mark.

So Jordan did allow himself a look back, even if it was brief.

“We talked about this stretch; it’s something that we needed to get through if we are going to be a playoff-caliber team,” Jordan said. “We’ve come through with flying colors, especially with people down and people out.”

Jordan’s focus on the rest of the season, starting with tonight’s home game against Atlanta, has become contagious. After the Portland game, none of the Wizards cared about the dust-up between Haywood and Kwame Brown in the waning moments of Friday’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

“What happened with Brendan and Kwame, anybody can make a story out of that because that’s something that just shouldn’t happen as far as a team trying to come together and be a team,” said Larry Hughes, who averaged 22.8 points and 3.8 steals during the trip. “Right now we are not even thinking about that. The good thing is that nobody is satisfied. I’m not. I think we can be a lot better.”

Hughes and Gilbert Arenas and Hughes will continue to be the keys to the Wizards’ success, at least until Jamison returns from his knee tendinitis. Each averaged 45.5 minutes a game on an exhausting trip that included five games in seven nights.

“Now it’s about to become tough,” said Arenas, who averaged 26.6 points on the trip. “We have to get as much rest as we can because we have some guys who are playing big minutes while we’re waiting for our dogs to come back. We’ve been playing without key players for the whole season. We know we have to keep fighting and step up even more. That’s what this team has been doing all year.”

Miami already has clinched the Southeast Division crown. As a result, the best the Wizards can hope for is the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, which would yield homecourt advantage in the first round.

But nipping at their heels is hot Chicago (38-31), which trails by just one game. Cleveland (37-32), Indiana (36-34) and Philadelphia (35-35) are within striking distance of the fourth spot.

The Wizards have lost more games (267) to injuries than last year (224), when they won just 25 games and had trouble getting Arenas, Hughes and Jerry Stackhouse on the floor at the same time.

Haywood (broken thumb) could be out until the end of the regular season, and Jarvis Hayes (cracked kneecap) might not play again until next season. Jamison said Monday he is feeling much better.

Juan Dixon, out the previous six games with a sprained ankle, injected life into the team’s bench with 13 points against Portland. It was his best offensive showing since he scored 15 against Toronto on Feb. 4.

Etan Thomas, who filled in for Haywood the past two games, had 15 points against Seattle and 10 points and 14 rebounds against the Trail Blazers.

Reflecting on the difficult season a year ago gives Dixon all the inspiration he needs.

“We’re in the middle of a playoff race, and it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “As long as we keep doing the right things, we shouldn’t have a problem holding on to the fourth spot and making the playoffs this year.”

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