- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2006

The Wizards have discovered they are the Suns of the East, as both Ernie Grunfeld and Eddie Jordan envisioned in the offseason.

The two men noted the postseason success of the defense-shy Suns and Mavericks last season and saw the prospect of the same in the Wizards. The thinking was motivated in part by the rule changes that aid and abet the leading offensive players of the NBA and the old-fashioned center being put on the endangered list.

The Wizards no longer are constrained by the traditional tenets of the NBA. They no longer fret over the absence of a genuine scorer in the low post. They no longer worry themselves silly on the defensive end of the floor.

They have accepted what they are and have no reason to apologize for it.

They just endeavor to outshoot the opposition. They just accumulate so many points that it becomes too burdensome for the opposition to match. This is who the Wizards have become.

They still pay lip service to getting defensive stops at the end of a game. But the talk is done with a wink and nod. The numbers don’t lie. The Wizards surrender the most points a game in the NBA. Big deal.

Their response to a scoring run by the opposition is to ask, “Is that all you have?”

And that has become the rub for the opposition, which routinely surpasses the 100-point mark on the Wizards. That often guarantees the opposition nothing more than gaudy offensive statistics next to a loss.

Gilbert Arenas is showing that he defers to no one in the NBA. Name one player who is performing at a higher level than him at the moment. You can’t do it.

His shooting range is absurd. He can shoot a normal-looking jump shot almost up to halfcourt.

His last-second forays at the end of a quarter require the opposition to pay strict attention to his maneuverings from 35 and 40 feet. He is liable to bust a shot that takes your breath away, as he did to the Suns near the end of the first quarter last week.

Arenas is so skilled that even Kobe Bryant cannot stomach it. He suggested Arenas is a bad-shot practitioner after the 60-point gem in Los Angeles, which is amusing on two levels.

Bryant has built a portion of his career on bad shots, and he forgets that one player’s bad shot is another player’s high-percentage shot.

A pull-up 25-footer is a bad shot for a high number of NBA players. It is well within the range of Arenas.

He is the two-time All-Star who no longer must concern himself with being left out of the game.

That concern has been shuttled to Caron Butler, who surely deserves a spot in the All-Star Game in February.

Butler is the quintessential stat stuffer: points, rebounds, assists and steals. He is tough, too. Or Tough Juice, as Jordan calls him. He can take an elbow in the face from Adam Morrison and return to business in short order.

He is the fellow you want by your side in a dark alley. Or maybe you would opt for DeShawn Stevenson, who has lost none of his strength because of a drastic haircut.

Stevenson, as promised, is the team’s leading straight-up defender. His defensive technique is impeccable: the balance, the strength, the capacity not to fall for pump fakes.

Oddly enough, Stevenson is basically paying for free this season, which puts him in Grunfeld’s growing heist category.

Stevenson couldn’t shoot a lick after jumping from high school to the Jazz. He has worked diligently on it and become a reliable secondary scorer.

That sometimes gets lost because of the onslaught of the Big Three: Arenas, Butler and Antawn Jamison.

But Stevenson’s contributions are essential, if you only recall the Wizards being sentenced to playing three-on-five on offense all too often last season.

Unbeknownst to everyone, Brendan Haywood apparently underwent a heart transplant in the offseason, so compelling has his energy level been since the Poet succumbed to an ankle injury.

Haywood is delivering a message to Jordan, which is: “I dare you to take me out of the starting lineup.”

It is funny how production can improve a previously strained player-coach relationship.

At this pace, Haywood and Jordan just might start sharing a cup of coffee together in the morning at the Starbucks in Tony Cheng’s neighborhood.

Haywood is so comfortable, so confident, that he is breaking out his full repertoire.

Where did he unearth that drop-step, left-handed hook shot off the glass against Primoz Brezec?

Was that a North Carolina special reserved for mom, friends and family?

Whatever it was, it shows where Haywood is. The Wizards, too.

The Wizards have won 12 of their last 15 games and let it be known they are legitimate contenders in the egalitarian Eastern Conference.

The Pistons are ahead of the pack but not persuasively so. The Shaquille O’Neal element with the Heat precludes them from being dismissed. The rest of the conference is a free-for-all, and the Wizards have no reason to think they can’t secure one of the top three playoff seeds.

Their ascension comes without the services of the Poet, Michael Ruffin and Darius Songaila.

Their absence has placed a considerable onus on Jordan’s seven-player rotation.

Jordan would like to have more options at his disposal, but Andray Blatche has left his game in Las Vegas, and Roger Mason and James Lang are inclined to be in LaLa Land whenever they are on the floor.

One of these days, Jarvis Hayes is liable to find a modicum of consistency with his outside shot after being sidelined much of the last two seasons.

For now, his quick shooting trigger prompts many of the team’s supporters to place a hand over their eyes and say a silent prayer.

The sureness of the Wizards is contagious.

You can tell by the sudden relevance of Calvin Booth.

He actually slipped a pick against the Bobcats, cut to the basket and received a pass from Arenas, only to draw a foul and two free throw attempts.

All this from a player whose most strenuous activity is sometimes congratulating teammates during timeouts.

If Booth is feeling that good, then you know something positive is happening to the collective psyche of the Wizards.

Their growth was on display against the Bobcats. That was a game they would have lost in the past, when they were softer mentally and unable to overcome a team on a roll and a hostile crowd in full throttle.

The Wizards completed the plays at the end, the Bobcats didn’t, and that is a truer sign of the team’s development than a 77-point first half the previous night against the Grizzlies.

Good teams learn to persevere through the bad calls and the rough patches of a 48-minute game.

Grunfeld and Jordan sold the value of continuity in the offseason; their foresight is now self-evident.

The team’s preseason talk of advancing to the conference finals in the playoffs does not seem so far-fetched now.

If the Wizards ever get up to full strength, they will be that much tougher to handle.

Imagine that.

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