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Wizards Ready for Final Push

8 Games Left to Secure Home-Court Advantage

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page D01

INDIANAPOLIS, April 7 -- If the Washington Wizards have learned anything in the past week, it's how quickly fortunes can change for teams on a postseason quest.

Before they tipped off against the Indiana Pacers Sunday afternoon, the Wizards were 11 games above .500, had a half-game lead for the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference and were four games ahead of the Pacers, who were in sixth place. Five days later, the Wizards have lost three in a row, are eight games above .500, trail the Chicago Bulls by one game for the fourth spot and are just one game ahead of the Pacers as the teams prepare for the rematch Friday at Conseco Fieldhouse.

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Most of the players on the Wizards' roster have never played a meaningful game in April, but as forward Etan Thomas walked out of the visitors' locker room following the Wizards' 105-93 defeat to Detroit on Wednesday night, he said the situation isn't lost on the newcomers. "Everybody knows what's going on," Thomas said. "We've just got to get our stuff together, finish off these last eight games strong."

The Wizards (41-33) will secure a winning record for the first time in seven years with their next victory -- and the team will begin selling playoff tickets before it hosts the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday. It's up to the Wizards to determine if those tickets will be for Games 1, 2, 5 and 7 or Games 3, 4 and 6.

Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said he hopes his team has taken note of how the Pacers, Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons -- three teams that have been in the playoffs the past three seasons -- have turned up their intensity in the fourth quarter of the last three games. "This is a prelude to the playoffs," Jordan said from Marian College in Indianapolis, where the Wizards held a voluntary workout. "This is not a playoff atmosphere yet. It's very close to it."

They will certainly step into an intense environment Friday against the Pacers (40-34), who are the hottest team in the East, having won five in a row despite injuries to forward Jermaine O'Neal and guard Jamaal Tinsley. "This is a must-win situation," forward Kwame Brown said. "All we can do now is play aggressive. All the talk is over."

The Wizards won't have all-star forward Antawn Jamison for the second straight game, as the team commits to its plan not to use him on back-to-back nights. Jamison is expected to return to the starting lineup Saturday. "I feel like I can go, but that's not the plan," Jamison said. "It's not up to me, it's up to the coaching staff and the trainers. It's not my decision at all."

Jamison's running hook shot with four-tenths of a second remaining was the difference in a 95-93 victory in Indiana on Jan. 22. But even without Jamison, Jordan said the Wizards' 79-76 loss at MCI Center on Sunday -- when they were outscored 26-17 in the fourth quarter -- should serve as enough incentive for his players to raise their games. "We should be highly motivated," Jordan said. "There is no reason we can't come in here and win."

After the Pacers, the Wizards will start a five-game homestand that will go a long way in determining where they wind up in the postseason. With Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland, the Wizards face three teams fighting for playoff positioning or their playoff lives. But the Wizards don't want to overlook Milwaukee or Charlotte -- two teams out of playoff contention but have given the Wizards competitive games this season.

Jamison admits that during the last month of the season, losing teams "start thinking about vacation." The Wizards are tasting success for the first time, and Jamison and Larry Hughes are the only Wizards in the regular rotation with playoff experience. Jamison experienced it for the first time last season in Dallas, and Hughes, a seventh-year guard, hasn't been in this environment since his rookie season in Philadelphia. "It's a different ballgame between October and March. Come April, May, June, all that stuff you did the past four months is out the window. We have to understand that we have to elevate our game, mentally and physically, to playoff-style basketball," Jamison said.

Should the Wizards slip into the sixth position, they could still get home-court advantage in the first round. Under the new realignment rules, the team with the better record -- not necessarily the division champion -- is guaranteed home-court advantage in each round.

The Wizards are just a half-game better than the Atlantic Division-leading Celtics (41-34), but if both teams finished the season with the same record, the Celtics would hold the tiebreaker after winning the season series, 3-1. The chances of the Wizards dropping into sixth and maintaining a better record than the Celtics is very unlikely.

Plus, Jamison said that isn't what the Wizards want. "We don't want to slip to that sixth spot -- even though we might get home-court advantage -- that's not our goal. Our goal is to win as many games as possible and to put ourselves in a situation where our chemistry is rolling toward the end of the season," Jamison said.

"You don't want to let this opportunity slip through your hands and say, 'What if?' Or, 'We could've' . . . . We haven't been playing our best ball lately, but we're still in a situation where we can get home-court in the first round, then make some noise in the second round and beyond that."

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