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Michael Wilbon

It's Time for Some Stops, or the Wizards Won't Move Forward

By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page E16

CHICAGO -- The Washington Wizards enter the playoffs understanding exactly what and who they are -- and aren't. They're offensively potent, defensively challenged. Each and every member of the team is well aware of the sports adage "defense wins championships," but the Wizards also know there's not much they can do about it now.

"We're not going to be that team that's a defensive stopper," Larry Hughes, the team's best (and some would say only) perimeter defender, said the other day. "It is team defense that we lack." Asked if there's something radical the Wizards can do about that rather disturbing weakness in the playoffs, Hughes shook his head and said: "That has to be something that's pounded into you over and over, year after year. We've executed offensively the entire year."

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But not defensively.

Hey, the Wizards weren't going to get everything done in this turnaround season. Eddie Jordan and Ernie Grunfeld needed two years to free the team of the losing culture that has hung around the franchise for the better part of 17 years. Jordan needed two years to install his offense. Clearly, a better defense needs to be the next priority, but the Wizards will for now have to rely heavily on the scoring of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Hughes when they open the playoffs here against the Bulls on Sunday.

When some asked if it was fair to characterize the Bulls as a defensive team and the Wizards as an offensive team, Jordan said: "It's offense against defense. We have to do what's been good for us."

The Bulls were hoping to draw the Wizards in the first round of the playoffs primarily because they, like most teams in the East, believe the Wizards simply aren't capable of playing playoff defense. Meantime, the Bulls have the No. 1 defense in the NBA as defined by opponents' field goal percentage. Asked how he would characterize Chicago as a team, Hughes said, "They hustle and play defense."

The Bulls believe that even without rookie Luol Deng, an above-average defender, and leading scorer Eddy Curry (both are sidelined), they have enough defenders to slow Arenas, Hughes and Jamison. The Bulls believe rookies Chris Duhon, Ben Gordon and particularly Andres Nocioni will make it difficult for the Wizards to score, and that Tyson Chandler, Antonio Davis and Othella Harrington can control the lane and glass up front.

The Wizards believe they can score no matter who is defending. And they aren't alone in that belief. Isiah Thomas, president of the Knicks and a man who knows about playoff basketball, said last week of the Wizards: "They've got great one-on-one players. Eddie has a great system that allows them to play one-on-one but allows them to perform and play the right way when things are spinning out of control. Playoff basketball comes down to the other team [knowing] what you're going to do. You know what they're going to do. So at some point in time, you've got to get a shot. He's got shot makers."

The percentages suggest the Bulls' shooters are lucky to hit a layup in a high school game. Duhon had to go on a late-season tear to get up to 35.2 percent for the season. Kirk Hinrich shoots just 39.7 percent and Nocioni is at 40.1 percent. Even the heralded Gordon, likely the NBA rookie of the year, shoots just 41.1 percent.

So how did the Bulls manage to finish with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference after going 0-9 to start the season?

They shot 43 percent as a team, but held opponents to 42 percent.

The Wizards, meantime, allow opponents to shoot 46 percent, which the Bulls think they can exploit for easy scores.

"We can't give them anything easy," Jordan said.

Even without Curry and his 16 points per game, if the Bulls shoot 46 percent they're going to win this series.

The rather dramatic differences in styles could make Wizards-Bulls one of the best first-round series in the playoffs. The Bulls, unless Coach Scott Skiles departs from his system, will use their entire bench and play even their best players fewer than 30 minutes. The Wizards have three players -- Arenas, Hughes and Jamison -- who play more than 38 minutes per game and are all among the league's top 20 players in minutes. The Bulls would love to be able to throw fresh defenders at tired Wizards in the fourth quarter -- fresh and physical defenders.

Arenas said last week he thought the Bulls "have a couple of dirty players," and it's quite safe to presume he was including Nocioni in that criticism. Nocioni bristled and shot back, "I play defense."

It's not often that teams who play each other only three times in a season develop such a dislike for one another, but the Bulls and Wizards have, starting with that preseason brawl.

As much as the Wizards believe they can outscore the Bulls, Washington is likely to discover sometime early in this series -- I suspect in Game 1 -- that isn't going to work. Hughes is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league this season, and Brendan Haywood, without Curry to check, should be able to assert himself and help with Hinrich and Gordon, who both like to get into the lane to score. Haywood, for my money, will be the key to the series. If he can average 10 rebounds a game and discourage the Bulls guards -- and get some help from Kwame Brown, who loves to play against Chandler -- the Wizards can win the series. If Brown is going to earn his keep in Washington, why not now, in defiance of sorts of Michael Jordan, who we presume will be in attendance?

But if the Wizards insist on trying to play a January style of basketball in late April and May, as it sounds like they will, it will be a long, entertaining series with the better defensive team, Chicago, advancing.

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