- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Washington Wizards must surmount two big obstacles tonight at MCI Center as they seek to stave off the fastest possible elimination in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

• The Miami Heat and hotshot guard Dwyane Wade, even if Shaquille O’Neal sits out again because of his bruised thigh.

• History.

Wade has turned this series into a personal showcase, almost making the absence of O’Neal in Game 3 inconsequential. And as if the Wizards didn’t have enough problems, Miami backup center Alonzo Mourning resembles the fearsome rebounding and shot-blocking menace who once terrorized the league more than a man who had a kidney transplant a little more than a year ago.

But as the Wizards prepare for Game 4 tonight, perhaps the most ominous aspect is that no NBA team ever has won a series after dropping the first three games. And the Heat don’t sound as if they want to make things any easier on the Wizards.

“When you have a team that is as talented as they are, you don’t want to breathe life into them,” said Mourning, who had 14 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in the Miami’s 102-95 victory Thursday night. “You want to keep them down and not provide any more confidence for them. We have to try to end things Saturday, but we know it’s not going to be a walk in the park.”

Perhaps not, although the Wizards sound like a team ready to accept the inevitability of their predicament. Now the talk is all of symbolism rather than moving on to the conference finals.

“We want to show that we have a lot of mettle — we want to show that we are still a good team at home,” coach Eddie Jordan said. “We’re going to show that we have learned some lessons and that we are going to compete to the end. We hope [tonight’s game] will be symbolic of what our season has been about — dealing with adversity and doing something when people don’t think you can achieve something.”

When the Wizards returned from Chicago down 0-2 in the first round, their confidence never wavered. Mainly that was because the Bulls were a group of overachievers, and Washington was able to dictate tempo against them and overwhelm them with superior athleticism, winning the next four games.

That certainly hasn’t been the case against Miami.

Despite O’Neal being so banged up he hasn’t been a factor, the Heat have exposed the Wizards’ season-long aversion to playing defense. Miami has shot at least 50 percent from the floor in all three games.

And although the Wizards’ lineup includes a pair of All-Stars in Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, plus a first-team NBA All-Defensive player in Larry Hughes, Wade has marginalized them through three games.

Wade, the second-year guard taken with the fifth pick overall in the 2003 draft, is averaging 27.3 points and 9.3 assists in the series and shooting 51.6 percent from the floor. He has done whatever he wants against the Wizards, who are in the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1982.

“With his will and his determination, along with his skill level, he just takes them to another level and another place that we can’t get to,” Jordan said.

The Wizards, who were outrebounded 43-29 in Game 3, hope tonight will not be the last chance they get to play in front of MCI Center fans.

“The first step is not to get eliminated at home [tonight],” Jamison said. “Take care of that and then try to steal one there [Monday]. The most important thing is our season is not going to end on our court [tonight]. … We at least want to force another game and force it back to Miami.”

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