Monday, January 16, 2006

And so the Wizards have risen from the near dead following an improbable pair of outcomes on the road over the weekend.

Their 94-85 victory over the Pacers was perhaps their most complete, most efficient and most defensively encouraging of the season.

Their 114-106 overtime victory over the Hawks, with Brendan Haywood and Antawn Jamison back in the starting lineup in place of Calvin Booth and Michael Ruffin, had the same old feel to it, as defense played a secondary role to the capacity of the Wizards to outscore a marginal opponent.

The Wizards were fortunate to leave Atlanta with grins on their faces, nurtured in part by the 23 turnovers of the Hawks.

But being fortunate is part of the NBA’s 82-game march, and the Wizards can note at least three games in which they were victimized by the see-no-evil propensity of the referees in their midst.

This is the team’s gut-check portion of schedule, to use a football term, which is becoming ever more appropriate with the Wizards.

Coach Eddie Jordan has come to have two platoons on his roster, an offensive one and a defensive one, not unlike those employed in football.

Unlike the coaches of the leading teams in the NBA, Jordan cannot have it both ways.

He cannot merge the two units into one, not unless Booth and Ruffin suddenly develop a plethora of offensive gifts to go with their defensive ones or Haywood and Jamison develop the opposite.

And that is just not going to happen, no more so than Haywood becoming a paragon of consistency instead of reverting to his giggling self.

At some point, coaches are obligated to accept each player as he is and endeavor to mix and match as best as possible, which is where Jordan is at this telling point in the season.

The Wizards have eight games left this month. Five are at home. Only two of the opponents have a winning record.

This is the time for the Wizards to put themselves firmly in the playoff chase or be consigned to the periphery, sentenced to seek the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and a first-round beating from the Pistons.

Perhaps Jordan’s bold lineup maneuvering, along with the installation of a hustle board in the team’s locker room, has reached the appointed targets in a persuasive way. By now, the Wizards must know they no longer can be content to outscore opponents.

That attitude, for the most part, has not worked against the stronger teams in the NBA this season. The Atlanta-type teams of the NBA? Sure. The rest of the NBA? You are just begging to be taken out, as has been the case with the Wizards all too often.

The distinction is everything to the Wizards because of their nature to be a pretty team.

Memo to the Wizards: Pick your opponents wisely if you want to play pretty.

The genuine path to success was the defensive effort displayed in Indianapolis, and no one embodied that effort more than Butler. He has all the requisite elements to be a top-notch defender: enough size, strength and quickness. And he is tough. And he seems to want to play defense.

More than his scoring — and his scoring average has crept up to a career-high level since he was inserted into the starting lineup — Butler is putting his fingerprints on games with his all-around play. He is a stat stuffer: rebounds, steals and assists. And he is not afraid to stick his nose in someone’s navel.

A team’s shooting percentage climbs or falls in relation to the number of shot attempts that are being contested. Defense is that simple. Show a coach 10 open looks vs. 10 shots taken with a hand in the face, and he will tell you that is the difference between a hot-shooting team and a cold-shooting one.

And that remains the challenge before the Wizards.

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