- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2005

The Washington Wizards’ role players are offering plenty of support in the team’s best-of-7 Eastern Conference series against Chicago.

Two days after reserve guard Juan Dixon helped the Wizards win Game4, oft-forgotten center Brendan Haywood had 17 points, seven rebounds and five blocks as Washington defeated the Bulls 112-110 to take a 3-2 lead in the series heading into tonight’s Game6.

Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison — the team’s Big Three — certainly have done their part in lifting the Wizards to the brink of their first playoff series victory in 23 seasons. However, role players Etan Thomas, Dixon and Haywood have put Washington over the top in its three wins.

?Three guys can only take you so far,? Jamison said. ?[The reserves] have been the difference.?

Arenas hit the game-winner with no time left in Game5 after Hughes pumped in 33 points, but Haywood’s inside presence was just as important. The win came two days after Dixon had a career-high 35 points to lift the Wizards in Game4.

Thomas came off the bench in Game3 to collect 20 points and nine rebounds. Fellow reserve Michael Ruffin also gave support with his physical play, rebounding and 5-for-7 effort at the foul line.

?We can’t win without the cast of guys we have,? Hughes said. ?[The Big Three doesnt] feel like we have to win basketball games. We put five guys out there and feel like our bench is always ready to come in. We never feel if we don’t win it, then the game will be lost.?

All season, the role players have covered for injuries, such as Hughes’ 20-game absence with a broken thumb, but they have been even better in the playoffs.

The Wizards have shortened their bench to an eight-man rotation and solidified substitution patterns in the postseason. The increased attention on the Big Three from the Bulls’ defense has allowed the supporting players to relax and produce.

?I am not going to put in Laron [Profit],? Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. ?I am not going to put in Steve Blake. It’s just a fact of the matter right now. They know they are in the rotation and counted on in certain parts of the game. It’s a tight rotation — eight guys, with Anthony Peeler being a special-situation guy.?

And Jordan has the luxury of playing the hot hand in the frontcourt whether it’s Haywood or Jared Jeffries, backups Thomas and Ruffin, or some combination of the four. The lone backcourt threat is Dixon, who shook off a horrid first three games to provide the heroics in Game4.

On Wednesday, it was Haywood, who went 8-for-10 from the field and finally made his presence felt in the postseason.

?I don’t know if it was Michael Ruffin or Etan Thomas,? Jamison said. ?After Brendan saw the way those guys performed, he knows he can play on the same level. He was focused. He was an aggressor. He had some key blocks. He altered some shots. That’s what we expect out of Brendan.?

Haywood credited his teammates for getting him involved.

?It was one of those things that is the law of averages,? said Haywood, who previous playoff high was eight points. ?I hadn’t had a good game all series. I had to have one. [On Wednesday night,] guys like Gilbert and Larry really looked for me early. A couple of easy looks really made things easier for me. Once you get a couple dunks and layups, it makes it easier for jump hooks and everything else starts falling.?

Haywood was a reason the Wizards had a 16-point advantage in points in the paint. They blew a 22-point lead and needed a last-second shot by Arenas to take control of the series, but they wouldn’t have been in position to win if Haywood hadn’t provided his inside dominance.

?He got offensive rebounds and putbacks,? Jordan said. ?He is as good in the fourth [quarter] as he is in the first. [Even] if he doesn’t experience success, he is still there. He blocked a lot of shots. He is good in a number of ways.?

And so is the rest of the Wizards’ unheralded supporting cast.

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