Although the Washington Wizards accomplished a feat that had not been achieved in more than five years, there was no need for a chest-bumping, jersey-thumping celebration after they defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 114-106, on the road Monday night.
They finished their final Western Conference trip of the season with a 3-2 record and withstood a couple of months' worth of drama -- a star player expressing his frustration with play-calling, two players engaging in a shouting match on the bench, a starter possibly lost for the season with an injury -- in less than a week.
Wizards guards Gilbert Arenas, above, and Larry Hughes stepped up their games on the road with Antawn Jamison, Jarvis Hayes, and, now, Brendan Haywood, out with injuries.
(John Froschauer - AP)
But the mood in the locker room at the Rose Garden was that of contained exuberance, with knowledge of the task ahead. No need to party when it hasn't really begun. "We're not where we want to be -- still," guard Larry Hughes said before the Wizards returned home to Washington with a winning record on a Western trip for the first time since March 2000. "I'm not satisfied. I think we have the talent to be better. We felt like we should be 5-0 or at least 4-1 on this trip. I don't think a lot of people expected us to go 3-2. We felt like we'd do it."
With 13 games remaining, the Wizards (39-30) have their eyes set on more than just ending the franchise's eight-year playoff drought -- they want home-court advantage in the first round, something the franchise hasn't had since 1979.
"Why not? We can't get no higher," point guard Gilbert Arenas said. The Miami Heat has already clinched the Southeast Division "so we've got to hold on to the four. If we do our part, we'll have home-court advantage."
The Wizards have a one-game lead over the hard-charging Chicago Bulls for the fourth-seed in the Eastern Conference, but they don't appear to be concerned about the teams chasing them. "We're worried about the Washington Wizards. We're not worried about who else is behind us or who is in front of us," Coach Eddie Jordan said. "One bit of advice I got [from former Wizards general manager Wes Unseld] was, 'Don't look in the loss column. Keep winning, you'll take care of business.' That's some advice I never forgot."
For several months, Jordan had been speaking with apprehension about the month of March, when the Wizards were scheduled to play 10 of 15 games on the road. He even joked that he was "looking forward to April." But the Wizards have already guaranteed a winning month, going 8-6 -- including 5-5 on the road, following the Western Conference trip -- as they prepare to host the Atlanta Hawks tonight.
With a win against the Hawks, the Wizards would set a new mark for wins at MCI Center with 25. They will play eight of their next 11 games at home, where they are 24-9, fourth-best in the East. "I hope our fans in D.C. can read the fact that we are accomplishing something," Jordan said. "And that we're starting a new era in Washington. We've had some ups and downs, but so far, we're doing okay. We don't look at the destination, the journey is important."
And the journey hasn't been without its bumps this season. Jordan has had to do constant patchwork with players frequently falling to injuries, but the latest road trip brought out another series of issues for the team. The Wizards had a blowout loss in Denver, followed by Hughes angrily pleading to get back to the up-tempo style of play that led to success early in the season; and a blowup in Los Angeles between center Brendan Haywood and Kwame Brown that Hughes said "shouldn't have happened."
Of course, there also were injuries. Haywood, who made 64 starts this season, broke the tip of his left thumb in that loss against the Clippers.
But the Wizards had a team breakfast in Los Angeles, where Jordan challenged his players to step up even more in the face of adversity. Instead of pulling apart, the team came together and played two of its better games in wins against Seattle and Portland, handing out more than 20 assists in both wins. "We've been playing without key players the whole season," Arenas said. "We know how to play. We've just got to keep fighting even more."
With Haywood down, the Wizards had to rely on Etan Thomas, a player who has been comfortable with his role coming off the bench, but averaged 12.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in two starts. Brown hit clutch free throws in the victories over Utah and Seattle, but there is no denying who has been carrying the Wizards while Antawn Jamison rests his injured right knee -- Hughes and Arenas. The two combined to score 247 of the Wizards' 486 points (50.8 percent) in the five games out West. "Everyone knows we're going to ride their coattails to the playoffs and further," Jordan said.
The Wizards have gone 5-4 without Jamison, staying above water and giving him no incentive to rush back before he has fully healed from right knee tendinitis. "I'm itching but I've got to be patient," said Jamison, who doesn't expect to return until next week. "Guys are doing a great job as far as calming me down, not making me even more antsy than I already am. If these guys keep rolling, it's good to take my time and really save my legs until they really need them. It's fun to be a part of this run, to be in the position that we're in. I just wish I was out there enjoying it, but I'm enjoying it on the bench."