- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

With a win in their home finale tonight against the Indiana Pacers, the Washington Wizards know they can further boost their positioning in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

The Wizards ensured themselves at least a sixth-place finish with Saturday’s defeat of Philadelphia. And when the Toronto Raptors fell to the Detroit Pistons yesterday, Washington was guaranteed a finish of no worse than fifth.

With Boston, Detroit and Orlando locked into the top three spots, the highest the Wizards could finish is fourth. The Cleveland Cavaliers hold a two-game lead over Washington with two games left for each team.

Regardless of whether the Wizards overtake the Cavaliers in the standings, one thing is certain: The Wizards will face the Cavaliers in the opening round of the playoffs for the third straight year.

Cleveland eliminated Washington in six games in the 2006 playoffs and then swept the Wizards last spring.

The Wizards would love homecourt advantage in the opening round, but in order to have a chance at that, they can’t think about what lies ahead, coach Eddie Jordan insists.

Jordan wants his team focusing solely on the Pacers.

“The entire last third of the season, I didn’t want to talk about playoffs, the fifth spot or whatever,” said Jordan, whose Wizards can improve to 43-38, their best record in three seasons, with a win over the Pacers. “It’s about performing these 48 minutes. If you’re thinking about the playoffs or [seeding] — ‘Oh, what if we lose’ — you can’t perform that way.”

In the Pacers the Wizards face a team that is two games out of the final playoff spot in the East and has won six of its last eight games and 10 of the past 14.

“We’re going to try to win as many games as possible,” forward Antawn Jamison said. “Nothing is etched in stone, yet. We still have a lot to play for. We’ve still got to get this chemistry down.”

A night after struggling to contain the Pistons’ reserves, the Wizards showed strong chemistry — particularly in the fourth quarter — Saturday night against the 76ers.

Trailing 84-78 heading into the final quarter, Washington went on a 31-9 tear to clinch the victory. The ball movement and defensive pressure that was lacking for much of the first three quarters finally came around. The Wizards racked up eight assists on 14 fourth-quarter field goals and shot 77.8 percent from the floor in the final period.

They swarmed the 76ers on the perimeter and protected the paint, which translated into seven consecutive misses, a six-minute scoring drought and 1-for-15 shooting for Philadelphia.

“It’s hard to say,” Jamison said about how far the Wizards still have to go to work Gilbert Arenas back into the mix. “You see a game like [Friday against Detroit]; see how poorly we played. Then to come out [Saturday night] and do a full 180, it shows you what type of team we could possibly be.”

Jordan will continue to fine-tune the nine-man rotation he plans to use for the playoffs in the final two games. For now, the starters are forwards Jamison and Caron Butler (if healthy after suffering a bruised knee against Detroit and sitting out the Philadelphia game), center Brendan Haywood, and guards DeShawn Stevenson and Antonio Daniels.

Arenas, fellow guard Roger Mason Jr. and forwards Darius Songaila and Andray Blatche come off the bench but have logged significant time with members of the starting five in the last two weeks.

At times, Jordan has gone with a three-guard look of Daniels, Arenas and Stevenson or Arenas, Stevenson and Mason, taking advantage of their ability to penetrate defenses and open up scoring opportunities.

Other times the Wizards play a more traditional lineup of Jamison, Haywood, Butler, Arenas and Stevenson. And if the situation calls for more length, Jordan even will pair the 7-foot Haywood and 6-foot-11 Blatche on the floor.

Rookies Nick Young, Oleksiy Pecherov and Dominic McGuire’s minutes have been basically nonexistent, but Jordan said the veteran play is the team’s strongest asset.

“This is the time where it’s business time,” Jordan said. “They may get some time in spots, but we’ve got our eight, nine guys and we’ve got to get them in sync together. That’s what it’s about right now.”

Today’s game

INDIANA PACERS AT WASHINGTON WIZARDS

When: 7 p.m.

Where: Verizon Center

TV/radio: CSN, AM-980

Probable starters: Pacers — F Mike Dunleavy, F Troy Murphy, C Jeff Foster, G Danny Granger, G Flip Murray. Wizards — F Antawn Jamison, F Darius Songaila, C Brendan Haywood, G Antonio Daniels, G DeShawn Stevenson.

Injuries: Pacers — Jamal Tinsley (knee). Wizards — F Caron Butler (knee), C Etan Thomas (sternum).

Outlook: The Wizards could get Butler back after a one-game absence after he suffered a bruised right knee Friday night against Detroit. He tested out his knee Saturday before the Philadelphia game but was still experiencing serious discomfort. Jordan said there’s no structural damage and that the forward is listed as day-to-day. … The Pacers enter tonight’s game with a 2-1 series lead over the Wizards. They won 119-110 on Oct. 31 despite 34 points from Gilbert Arenas. Washington won the next meeting 103-90 two weeks later, then fell 93-85 on Dec. 22 despite 29 points from Jamison.

Mike Jones

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