Friday, February 27, 2004

In their four previous attempts this season to win three straight games the Washington Wizards were denied by rising teams (Cleveland and Denver) and collapsing ones (Boston and Philadelphia).

This afternoon at MCI Center, they’ll try again, the only difference being that the opponent, the Los Angeles Lakers (36-20), is near the top of the NBA food chain.

After a stretch of basketball they would soon like to forget — one where they lost five games by an average of 22 points and saw some ugly feelings sprout between Kwame Brown and Gilbert Arenas over shots — the Wizards (18-38) have defeated Toronto and Chicago.

But getting that elusive third win will be tough against the Lakers, although the Wizards have beaten Los Angeles in two of their last three visits to MCI Center.

“We’re not going to get to happy, because we have the Lakers coming in,” said Brown, who was laughing and joking with Arenas in the locker room following Thursday’s 95-87 win over the Bulls. “But this is going to be tough. They’ve got those Hall of Fame players on their team. Hopefully, we can compete.”

Competing is something Washington appeared to quit doing in that five-game skid. Only the Pacers failed to score at least 107 points and shoot 53 percent or better from the floor against the Wizards.

But the Wizards played much better in the last two games, especially on the defensive end where they limited the injury-riddled Raptors and the Bulls to 74 and 87 points, respectively.

Brown doesn’t buy the theory that the two victories were the byproduct of playing bad teams. He thinks the Wizards could have lost those games, too, if they had played the way they had in the previous five.

“They also are teams we could have lost to if we were playing like we were playing before,” Brown said. “When we came back from the All-Star break, anybody could have beat us and they did. I just think, not giving us too much credit and not taking anything away from those teams, I think we’re just playing a lot better right now.”

Coach Eddie Jordan had been reluctant to say that the locker room acrimony of the past week had morphed into something positive. However, he admitted yesterday that this was something to be considered.

“Maybe it did,” Jordan said. “I think the win two nights ago helped the win last night. And the win last night hopefully will help us to win Saturday.”

As good as the Lakers are, they have not resembled the team most thought would breeze to the NBA championship after adding Karl Malone and Gary Payton to a mix that already included Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. With 26 games remaining in the regular season, the Lakers haven’t come close to living up to preseason expectations.

“They’ve had some issues, but they’re still the Lakers,” Wizards center Brendan Haywood said. “We have to go out and play hard. It’s important to us to get three straight.”

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