- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2005

MIAMI.

The Wizards have to find a way to push the ball on the Heat if they are to make this series vaguely competitive.

The Wizards cannot allow themselves to become immersed in a bump-and-grind affair with the Heat, as they did for the most part in Game1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals yesterday, with predictable results.

Even with Shaquille O’Neal limited to 26 minutes because of foul trouble, the Heat ground the Wizards into a messy mass of mistakes en route to a 105-86 victory.

The Wizards played what amounted to seven-plus minutes of basketball after falling behind by 17 points in the second quarter. It was then that the Wizards forced a number of turnovers. It was then that the Wizards started to run the fast break and exploit the limitations of the Heat in the open court.

The Wizards closed the second quarter on a 25-10 run to pull to 49-47 at halftime. But that was pretty much it for the Wizards. They had one run in them.

Otherwise, the muscle of O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning and the lane-driving forays of Dwyane Wade stymied the Wizards.

No one in the Support Hose State is taking the Wizards seriously. They see the Wizards as a warm-up exercise to a conference finals featuring the Heat and Pistons.

And perhaps that is all the Wizards are destined to be, judging from their anemic performance in the third quarter, with O’Neal planted on the bench. Although O’Neal played only four minutes in the third quarter, the Heat outscored the Wizards 33-17 to put the game away.

So thoroughly in control were the hosts that much of the fourth quarter resembled a preseason game instead of a high-stakes playoff game in May.

There just was no sense of urgency in the Wizards. There was no push to take the red-clad crowd out of the proceedings. There was only this feeling that the Wizards still were coming down from their series-clinching victory over the Bulls on Fun Street on Friday night.

It was a feeling that tugged on Wizards coach Eddie Jordan.

“After two emotional wins in the last series, it’s tough to recover both physically and mentally,” Jordan said.

The Wizards were being serenaded to cheers late Friday night, and about 40 hours later, they were going up against one of the favorites to claim the NBA championship in June.

As Larry Hughes said, “It definitely felt like back-to-back games in the regular season, only with the stakes being higher. Those are things that we have to fight through.”

But there was little fight in the Wizards on this sun-splashed afternoon.

Their bench provided only five points, compared to the 36 bench points of the Heat.

As an added insult, Christian Laettner, an ex-member of the Wizards who is down to playing on fumes, contributed six points and four rebounds in 24 minutes, a quality stint that could not be matched by any of the backups of the visiting team.

The Wizards appeared lost in the first quarter, as they endured a 5-for-23 shooting stretch.

“I thought we were a little tight there,” Jordan said.

Whether it was nerves or the fatigue of the series with the Bulls, the Wizards fulfilled their role as a patsy to the Heat.

“The experts do not play,” Hughes said. “They just use their expertise to analyze and break down things that could happen. But nobody ever knows. Nobody will tell me that I will lose four games in a row. I never believe if someone says I cannot do something, and I think our team feels the same way.”

The experts certainly got it right in this sleep-inducing mismatch of Game1, and it hardly required O’Neal to pop a bead of perspiration.

Mourning, O’Neal’s backup, worked himself into a fist-waving, muscle-posing, shout-to-the-skies frenzy late in the third quarter after converting a put-back and drawing a foul.

Mourning probably burned more energy in that one sequence than O’Neal burned all afternoon.

And that is not good news for the Wizards.


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