- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Washington Wizards were locked into fifth place, having just beaten the Indiana Pacers and watched the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday night to clinch fourth place. The regular-season finale that would come two days later seemed meaningless, and Wizards coach Eddie Jordan was asked if he was glad to know against who and where his team would open the playoffs this weekend.

But Jordan was in no mood to look that far ahead.

“Yep, we play Orlando Wednesday,” he said after Washington’s 117-110 win over Indiana.

The Wizards never trailed the Pacers despite playing without Gilbert Arenas (precautionary move) and Caron Butler (bruised knee), and they outrebounded them 58-31. Backup guard Roger Mason Jr. made seven 3-pointers and scored 31 points — the most by a Wizards reserve since Michael Jordan’s 34 in 2002 against Milwaukee.

But the final 13 minutes frustrated Jordan.

He preferred to see his team continue to throttle the Pacers. Instead the Wizards allowed the Pacers to outscore them 35-15 to pull within three points before four free throws held off the late charge and clinched the victory.

“We left a lot of playmaking out there that we should have converted,” Jordan said. “Pick and rolls, draw and kicks, post feeds. So that’s what I’m not very happy about: leaving a lot of plays out there that passing wise and playmaking wise that you have to complete so you don’t have a game, up three with them still having a chance to tie it.”

So as the Wizards conclude the regular season tonight against the Orlando Magic, Jordan’s prep for the playoffs checklist remains incomplete.

He has the luxury of not playing any of his starters against Orlando, if he so desires. But Jordan hasn’t seen enough out of his team. He wants to see more rhythm and execution out of his top nine players, who have played together only three times since last November.

And then there was the incomplete effort from the team’s young bench players against Indiana. Despite outscoring the team’s starters 70-47, they committed gaffs that let the Pacers back into the game.

“We made plenty of mistakes at the end,” Jordan said. “I liked our bench in the first half, and I didn’t like some guys in the second half.”

The Wizards’ veterans, however, weren’t too concerned.

“There’s not a lot to take from it because we probably didn’t play the guys down the stretch that would’ve played this game if we thought we flat out needed to win,” center Brendan Haywood said. “So nothing to take from it. But I’m glad our young guys got to play and get some experience.”

Jordan still wants a strong effort tonight, but he admits he must be cautious.

“We want to look at Gil and look at Caron and see how they are health-wise and if they are able to play. I’d like them to play some,” he said. “And we’ll give our main guys limited minutes and give our bench guys some more minutes. And hope nobody gets hurt.”

Maintaining health is a top concern for the Wizards’ veterans. After having last year’s playoff hopes derailed by injuries to Arenas and Butler and battling an array of injuries much of this season, they would hate to have a freak accident deal them another crushing blow.

“Our biggest asset going into the playoffs is our health,” Antonio Daniels said. “We don’t need to take that for granted because we’ve been hit by the injury bug numerous amount of times.

“But my view on the whole thing is, the injuries are behind us,” Daniels added. “They have to be. All that we’ve been through the past couple years, the injuries have to be behind us. We need to be optimistic about the opportunity we have. I’m excited. I think everyone in this locker room wants to face Cleveland because of our past history.”

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