- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Wizards employed resilience anew following the 29-point loss in Denver, the second-guessing of Larry Hughes, the Kwame Brown-Brendan Haywood tiff in Los Angeles and the broken thumb of Haywood.

The Wizards appeared en route to the belly-up position after falling to the Clippers, only to claim the last two games of the five-game West Coast trip and cast themselves in a far better light.

A hand, as usual, goes to the even-tempered Eddie Jordan, a coach who is able to put each speed bump or locker-room tempest into the context of an 82-game schedule.

It should come as no revelation that athletes are as richly human as the rest of us, which is to say they have the same annoyances as the rest of us.

In fact, given the length of the NBA season that crams together so many different personalities in locker rooms, jets, buses and hotels, it is a small miracle that more players do not act on these annoyances, in the manner of Rod Strickland serving a knuckle sandwich to Tracy Murray.

The warm and fuzzy talk of the team reads well in the newspaper. Yet it is a rote-form talk designed to spare the annoying teammate who gets on everyone’s nerves, especially when he chews his food with his mouth open.

In the NBA, you do not have to like one another. You do have to play as a team. You do have to pass the ball to the open teammate, even if you think he is the worst human on the planet.

The Wizards came up to the abyss following the loss in Los Angeles, where an improbable season was starting to show signs of dissolving.

There was frustration in the words of Hughes. There was frustration in the anger of Brown and Haywood. There was a sense, right there, that this feel-good season was teetering on the edge of a crack-up.

Jordan, Ernie Grunfeld and the Wizards know the bar on their season already has been raised. They know if the team limps into the playoffs with a No. 7 seed and is ushered out in five games, fair or not after the 25-win effort in 2004, it will be viewed with a tinge of disappointment.

The Wizards have two All-Stars in Gilbert Arenas and the injured Antawn Jamison, a third All-Star in Hughes if he had not fractured his thumb, a coach of the year candidate in Jordan, an executive of the year candidate in Grunfeld, serviceable big men in Haywood, Brown and Etan Thomas and depth galore.

To reiterate a recent point, if this team had managed to stay vaguely healthy, it would have won 50 games this season. The Wizards are hardly a No. 7 seed, talent-wise. Yet, given their youth and impetuousness, they remain an unknown quantity going into the playoff push.

With 13 remaining games, eight at home, the Wizards are in a position to finish with conviction, secure homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs and perhaps become as healthy as they have been all season.

They have a more favorable schedule than either the Bulls or Cavaliers, the two teams chasing the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. Of the three, the Bulls are perhaps the most unsettling playoff challenger, having come together at the most opportune time of the season.

That is subject to change in the weeks ahead. If the Wizards ever get to full strength — a condition they have been unable to meet this season — they have all the pieces to forge a second-round date with Shaq and the Heat.

We can discuss that later.

For now, we are talking about a team that has more work to complete instead of a team that blew a gasket on the West Coast.

Short-term advice for the Wizards: Try not to play down to the level of the Hawks tonight.

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