- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Washington Wizards have not made back-to-back playoff appearances since 1988. Now they have 31 games to end that drought.

The good news for the Wizards (26-25): They would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.

The bad news: Their first-round opponent would be Miami, which has Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade and a 14-game winning streak against Washington.

The Wizards are by no means locked into the No. 7 spot. They are just a half-game behind Milwaukee (27-25) for the sixth seed and one game behind No. 5 Indiana (26-23), which will be without Jermaine O’Neal for at least six more weeks.

The hope among the Wizards is that they have used the first 51 games of the season in self-discovery — trying to figure out, among other things, how to defend and how to use newcomers Caron Butler and Antonio Davis — and now are ready to make a strong run.

“I think we got some kinks out,” said All-Star guard Gilbert Arenas, fourth in the league in scoring (28.3). “If you look at the way the last two games went before the All-Star break, we fought hard all the way to the end.”

Winners of 13 of their last 19, the Wizards come out of the break on a two-game losing streak on the heels of winning five straight. Both of those losses came against teams (New Orleans/Oklahoma City and Dallas) that are jockeying for playoff position.

The Hornets (29-23) are the league’s surprise team with perhaps the exception of Phoenix, which is without Amare Stoudemire. They ended the Wizards’ winning streak Feb. 13 with a jump shot from David West as time expired to give the Hornets a 97-96 victory.

And it is reasonable to believe that the outcome of their game at Dallas on Wednesday might have been different than a 103-97 loss had Arenas not gone 4-for-22 from the field and been held more than 16 points below his average.

Forward Antawn Jamison said the Wizards will determine their postseason fate by the way they play away from MCI Center. Washington is just 8-16 on the road, where they play 17 of their 31 remaining games.

“I just think the road is going to be a challenge,” he said. “If we are able to steal some games on the road and play as well as we do at home, I definitely think we’ll be going in the right direction. I think right now we have to channel that energy and focus and poise that we have at home to the road. I think we’re on our way, and I think we’re starting to get that identity.”

One problem the Wizards had early on was that their rotation was too long. But if the last few weeks are any indication, the bench will be much shorter the rest of the way, with Daniels and Michael Ruffin getting the most important minutes.

Butler (16.7 points) has played better since coach Eddie Jordan inserted him in the starting lineup and now looks like a steal in the Kwame Brown trade with the Los Angles Lakers. The Wizards also hope Etan Thomas (4.4 points, 3.5 rebounds) finally has played himself into shape and is ready to contribute.

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