- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2007

The Wizards are in a tenuous position, much of it their doing.

The last team they want to see in the first round of the playoffs is the one they most likely will see.

That would be the team with Shaquille O’Neal at center.

O’Neal and the Heat have a 14-1 record against the Wizards the last three seasons, including the four-game sweep in the conference semifinals two years ago.

Another sweep hardly would be surprising, especially with the Heat getting into playoff shape and on the verge of overtaking the Wizards in the Southeast Division.

There is just no way around this unappealing scenario unless the Wizards conclude the regular season in one of two fashions, either with a flourish or with a whimper.

Neither prospect is likely to happen.

The Wizards, with 11 of their last 18 games on the road and Caron Butler expected to miss at least the next five games, probably will finish the remaining schedule in the vicinity of .500.

That would leave them with a record of 45-37 and the sixth seed, assuming the Heat continue to compete with a sense of purpose.

The remaining schedule before the Heat is favorable. Of the Heat’s 16 remaining games, only five are against teams with winning records. That should put the Heat in the vicinity of 47 to 48 victories and leave them with the third seed, barring a significant change of order among the conference leaders.

The Pistons are poised to claim the No. 1 seed in the conference after going 5-0 on the West Coast. The Cavaliers have the No. 2 seed in their sights.

The Bulls would tumble to the No. 5 spot because of league rules that dictate division winners can be seeded no lower than No. 3 and No. 4 in the playoffs.

The Raptors would have the No. 4 seed by virtue of winning the Atlantic Division.

This worst-case scenario before the Wizards is still evolving, of course.

The Wizards still have a degree of wiggle room but not much.

If the Wizards go 2-3 on their West Coast trip — a likely prospect because of two back-to-back impositions — their days atop the division will be a memory.

The Wizards will have no one to blame but themselves. The division was theirs to lose — with first O’Neal and then Dwyane Wade on the shelf — and lose it they are about to do.

The injury to Antawn Jamison that caused him to miss February undoubtedly jarred the confidence level of the Wizards.

After the Wizards defeated the Pistons twice within a four-day period in late January, they had every reason to think that this could be their break-out season in the playoffs.

But Jamison bumped knees with DeShawn Stevenson in that second meeting with the Pistons, and the Wizards lost their feel-good bearing in that moment.

The Wizards have shown only glimpses of their midseason form since Jamison returned to the lineup, no doubt in part because of the deteriorating physical condition of Butler.

The Wizards looked formidable in their spanking of the Raptors nearly two weeks ago and in their dismantling of the fatigued Hornets on Saturday night.

Yet in that period, the Wizards have cursed themselves.

They lost to a player named Zaza in Atlanta. They then lost to a dead man three nights later on Fun Street.

Who knew Steve Francis was still in the NBA until he hit the last-second shot that dropped the Wizards?

Those two outcomes revealed more about the Wizards than their supporters cared to know.

While the Pistons, Cavaliers and Heat were starting to play with conviction in anticipation of the playoffs, the Wizards were losing to Zaza and a dead man.

The Wizards have 18 games to left to change the impending scenario.

But they will need about a 14-4 close to be in the company of the Cavaliers and Bulls and possibly avoid a dreaded playoff date with the Heat.

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