- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2005

The Wizards are a curiosity piece at the moment, their best basketball ahead, which bodes well following a 3-0 start.

The Wizards have not really found a pronounced rhythm in each of their three games. They have had moments and stretches where they look capable of winning 50-plus games this season.

But they have not come together as a team yet, which is to be expected. After all, they are a team of 10 relevant players, a daunting rotation for both players and coaches alike.

They are a team with three newcomers securing appreciable playing time. They also are a team with a renewed emphasis on defense, which can lead to unsightly stretches of basketball, as was the case in the fourth quarter of the Wizards-Magic game on Fun Street Saturday night.

It is way too early to determine if this is the new face of the Wizards, for the three opponents were hardly worthy. The Raptors are modest at best, the Knicks just plain awful, and the Magic stuck on the dribble-happy proclivities of Steve Francis.

The Wizards merely defeated three teams looking for a soft landing spot. But that is what you are supposed to do in the NBA. You beat the teams on the schedule lacking in personnel or moxie or both, teams that invent ways to fall short in the waning minutes of a tight game. The Wizards were one of those teams not too long ago.

Now, though, the Wizards have an emerging superstar in Gilbert Arenas, a double-double forward in Antawn Jamison and an expansive cast of role players, each one with specific utilities that strengthen the whole.

This is how deep the team is: Etan Thomas has played a grand total of 28 minutes in the three games and scored but two points. That is subject to change, of course, depending on matchups and injuries. It also is revealing.

Thomas has been an essential part of the supporting cast the last two seasons, and now he is something less than that.

After Antonio Daniels went down with an ugly left ankle sprain in the third quarter Saturday, coach Eddie Jordan stayed with Chucky Atkins, and the plucky guard responded with seven points in the fourth quarter.

This is the sort of depth teams are always seeking. It is the kind of depth that yields a victory on a night that easily could have been a loss. It is the kind of depth that allowed Jordan to employ 6-foot-11 Calvin Booth in the second half because of the height advantage of the Magic.

Booth did not morph into the Bill Walton of 1986, but he filled space, contested shots and finished with two blocked shots, two points and one rebound in 10 minutes, enough good work that prevented the Magic from owning the three-second lane.

These Wizards are built to absorb the injuries that bedeviled them last season, excluding an injury to either Arenas or Jamison. You do not replace All-Stars in the NBA.

Caron Butler, who stuffed his statistical line with 11 points, seven rebounds and five assists in 29 minutes on opening night, missed the last two games because of a contusion to his left thigh. The Wizards had just enough in reserve to overcome his absence.

That is the flexibility that Ernie Grunfeld and Jordan touted going into the season, which trumped the departure of Larry Hughes.

The Wizards had just one note with the combination of Arenas, Jamison and Hughes, and that was to outscore opponents, which they knew they could do on many nights. Now, though, they have a gritty side to them, a more rugged temperament and a greater commitment to stopping opponents.

Jordan made certain to tick off the shooting percentage of the opponents in the first three games during his postgame dissection, if only to underscore the point of solid defense: .398, .320 and .313.

It would be premature to be overly absolute with the Wizards, but the initial inspection is encouraging.

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