- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2007

Despite having already clinched a playoff berth, the Washington Wizards’ game today against the Chicago Bulls remains an important contest.

After ending their season-high six-game losing streak with a 98-85 victory Friday against an injury-depleted Atlanta team, the tension hovering over the Wizards (40-39) seemed to lift like a fog. Today’s game and the other two remaining regular-season matchups are chances to keep momentum heading into the postseason.

“It’s good to get a win because we’ve been playing hard. We just haven’t been able to close out teams,” guard DeShawn Stevenson said following the Atlanta win. “Guys have been stepping up for us and we’re going to have to keep getting that from guys. Tonight it was Jarvis [Hayes]. Jarvis had a big game for us.”

Against Atlanta, Hayes found his outside shot early and remained aggressive, connecting on 4 of 7 3-pointers. Overall, Hayes was 8-for-14 from the field for 20 points — second on the team only to Stevenson, who scored 25 points on 9-for-16 shooting.

“He’s been steady,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said of Hayes. “You can feel the confidence in his game, you can see him working through some mistakes and some missed shots. In the past, a missed shot or two and maybe he felt a little bit less confident. But he’s taking quality shots. He knows that his contributions are very important for us right now.”

Hayes said that getting more playing time and knowing that the team needs him more now than ever have bolstered his confidence.

“I’m catching a rhythm, I guess, at the right time,” said Hayes, who has started in place of Caron Butler ever since the All-Star forward broke his hand on April 1. “It’s a new season for me. Unfortunately when [Gilbert Arenas] and Caron went down the team needed me to step up. When both of those guys went down it was time for the season to start over again. To step up and play a better overall game.”

Hayes has scored in double figures in five of the Wizards’ last six games. His best effort came in a 120-114 overtime loss on the road to the New Jersey Nets (the seventh seed), when he scored a career-high 29 points on 12-for-22 shooting

The Wizards would be well-served not only for Hayes to play well again this afternoon against the Bulls, but also in the their remaining two games later this the week. Washington plays at home Tuesday against Orlando and in the regular-season finale the following night at Indiana.

Hayes will be counted on again even more heavily if point guard Antonio Daniels is unable to play. Daniels, starting in place of Arenas (knee surgery), suffered a lower back bruise when he was knocked hard to the ground by the Hawks’ Solomon Jones in the third quarter Friday.

Listed as game-time decision for today’s game, Daniels did not practice yesterday. And judging by the way he moved about so gingerly on Friday — he could barely straighten up and was the last player dressed for the team bus — he may not play today.

Daniels would be a significant loss for the Wizards because he has emerged as a leader since Arenas and Butler were lost for the season.

Most of the Wizards’ players seemed resigned to finishing as either the sixth (their present spot) or seventh seed. Now they simply are interested in stringing together some wins.

They can go a long way to securing the sixth seed with a win today against the Bulls, whom they have beaten in 10 of the teams’ last 11 regular-season meetings at Verizon Center.

A Wizards’ win, coupled with a Nets’ loss against the Indiana Pacers, would ensure that neither New Jersey nor the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic could usurp the sixth seed from Washington. If the playoffs began today, the Wizards would play the third-seeded Toronto Raptors, who beat Washington in three of four meetings this season.

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