- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Wizards are limping into the playoffs, their postseason prospects growing more unfavorable with each loss.

The Wizards have tumbled to sixth place in the Eastern Conference, a dreaded position because of a possible date with the Heat.

The meeting would have the air of a sentence to the Wizards, given the recent one-sided history between the teams.

This is the grim reality that was set in motion in late January, when Antawn Jamison bumped knees with DeShawn Stevenson and was sidelined for a month.

The injury to Caron Butler accelerated the team’s descent.

Even the recent tweaking of Andray Blatche’s knee is problematic because of the energy he was providing in the absence of Butler.

The Wizards are teetering from a creative West Coast trip, with each of the four losses serving as a taunt.

The Wizards were in position to win each of the games but either couldn’t make a shot, grab a rebound or get a defensive stop at the most necessary times.

That is the propensity of a team that has lost its way, which is in contrast to the team that won three of four games on its West Coast trip in December.

The ejection of Eddie Jordan in Salt Lake City was symptomatic of the team’s frustration.

The Wizards have 13 games left to salvage their season. The return of Butler, possibly tonight, provides one element of hope. Another is that seven of their last 13 games will be held on Fun Street, where the Wizards tend to be more explosive and confident.

They will need to sweep all seven home games if they want to reclaim the No. 1 perch in the Southeast Division.

That objective is paramount because of their inclination to blink and then gulp hard at critical points of games on the road.

Their remaining road schedule is demanding enough to cause consternation: at Milwaukee, Charlotte, New Jersey, Miami, Atlanta and Indiana.

There are at least three suspected losses in that mix, possibly more if Zaza reprises his last performance against the Wizards.

This is not the season that was envisioned at the All-Star break, when the Wizards were the toast of the Eastern Conference and seemingly poised to reach the 50-win mark and be in the company of the Pistons, Cavaliers and Bulls.

That is no longer likely, barring a collapse of the conference leaders.

No team, with the exception of the Heat, necessarily relishes a first-round playoff engagement with the Wizards.

The Wizards have a scoring trio that is unmatched in the conference. If nothing else, that gives them the boxing equivalent of a puncher’s chance.

Otherwise, their deficiencies on defense remain as pronounced as ever. Going down the stretch against the Jazz, the Wizards looked as anemic in the three-second lane as they did in their season-opening game with the Cavaliers in November.

As effective a player as Carlos Boozer is, he is no Karl Malone.

Yet you could not make that distinction with the Wizards failing to impede his progress around the basket.

The Wizards have done enough good work the last two seasons that merely making the playoffs is no longer cause to set off fireworks and hand out T-shirts marking the accomplishment.

The Wizards will have especially long faces if they fail to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs.

That prospect should lend a sense of urgency to the Wizards the rest of the way. It also should galvanize them.

But this team is as mercurial as its lead player, Gilbert Arenas.

You just never know with the Wizards.

They can be one kind of team one night and another kind of team another night.

They can bury the Raptors one night and then cower before Zaza the next.

The suspicion persists that it will end badly for the Wizards.

Yet it would not be beyond their capacity to reverse the ominous signs lurking in their midst.

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