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Michael Wilbon

It's No Way to Finish

By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page E09

Playoff tickets went on sale yesterday in Washington. Wizards playoff tickets. Perhaps the shock of that news led the Wizards to fall behind by three touchdowns only two minutes into the second quarter and lose a home game a team with ambition shouldn't lose.

As impressive as the Wizards have been this season in reversing their pathetic losing ways, this five-game losing streak has conjured up fears of familiar times. With Allen Iverson wearing a Yankees hat over a 'do-rag and some bling over a white T-shirt instead of a uniform, the Wizards should have been a lock to win at home last night.

Wizards coach Eddie Jordan is trying to make his team realize the increased difficulty in winning late-season games. (Evan Vucci - AP)

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They didn't. They fell preposterously behind, made up the deficit and even went ahead by 13, then fell apart down the stretch, unable to score inside and unable to defend in a 112-106 loss.

The Wizards are still going to make the playoffs. Games against Milwaukee, expansion Charlotte and the Knicks will still get Washington to 44 victories and therefore into the postseason. Still, it's the worst time for a meltdown. The Wizards shouldn't lose games to Boston without Antoine Walker and Philly without Iverson and Chris Webber, the 76ers' two best players.

This moonwalking while other teams are playing tip-off to buzzer is sure to test the patience of Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan. And if ever there was a time this season for soul-searching, this appears to be it.

Among the teams in position for a playoff spot now, only Cleveland has looked worse than the Wizards the last week. The Wizards came home from a western trip 11 games over .500 with eight of the final 11 games at home. The home-court losses to Indiana and Boston are somewhat understandable because those teams are full of players who have playoff experience and understand the difference between winning in February and winning in April.

But there's no acceptable excuse for allowing 64 points in a half to a 76ers team without Iverson, without Webber, the night after they played against Cleveland and had to travel. The Wizards ought to be ashamed to have played such lazy defense the first half last night. One would think Tuesday night's uninspired defensive performance would have embarrassed them enough. Losing happens, but a team that claims to have serious playoff aspirations should never allow more than 35 uncontested shots to an opponent missing its best offensive player (Walker). Defense, as coaches tell us all the time, is as much about desire as it is talent.

Yet the Wizards allowed the 76ers to shoot 59 percent in the first half, 57 percent on three-point shots. They made Rodney Rogers look like Wilt. A kid named Josh Davis, from Wyoming, powered his way to the basket for a layup that elicited a groan from the crowd. Willie Green, whom 76ers Coach Jim O'Brien hasn't even played in nine of the past 12 games, had nine points and seven assists at intermission as Iverson's mini-me stand-in. During one stretch, Philly's Andre Iguodala made consecutive three-pointers without a Washington defender within six feet. The scolding Kwame Brown got from Jordan during the ensuing timeout suggested he was the culprit.

What to do about Brown is such a quandary. At the end of his fourth season, he not only doesn't look like a No. 1 overall pick, he doesn't even look like a first-round draft pick. There's plenty of evidence that says Brown isn't ever going to be a player here. Maybe someplace else, but not here. Okay, Doug Collins and Michael Jordan were too impatient; we get that. They were. But Eddie Jordan has demonstrated the patience of Job with this kid. There's no more benefit of the doubt. Is it possible he'll be a good player somewhere else? Yes, absolutely. But there's too much water under the bridge here, and Brown is drowning in it.

There's nobody else to blame for not knowing defensive rotations. In the first half last night, in a game where the opponent has nobody resembling Shaq or Ben Wallace, Brown played 10 minutes, shot an air-ball hook, missed 2 of 4 free throws and grabbed only two rebounds. Goodness, if you could just put Michael Ruffin's head and heart in Kwame Brown's body.

Kwame isn't the only problem, by a long shot. All the Wizards' weaknesses were on display in the first half. They struggle to play interior defense, especially without injured Brendan Haywood. The Wizards rank in the bottom 10 in the NBA in just about every important defensive category. And of the teams already occupying the 16 playoff spots, the Wizards and 76ers are the only ones that have allowed more points that they've scored. Also, the Wizards don't have much inside offense either. Antawn Jamison, hobbled by tendinitis, is reduced to being exclusively a perimeter player.

Midway through the season, a lot of this stuff is waved off, ignored completely. A win is a win, right? Who cares how it looks?

Well, it's time to care, not about form necessarily, but how the team is playing. Some teams -- Indiana, Chicago, New Jersey, Denver and Dallas come to mind -- are at or near the top of their games. They're stampeding into the final week of the season. In the case of the Pacers and Bulls, specifically, they're winning without at least two key players.

Yes, just making the playoffs, after not qualifying for the postseason since 1997, is a major accomplishment for the Washington franchise. Jordan told the team when it was struggling at the all-star break how difficult the second half would be, and specifically how much more difficult April would be.

"We're trying to learn," he said after the loss to Philly, "what this time of year is all about. It's something a first-time, new playoff contending team has to learn. We see it, we feel it, we're going through it. It's good we built a cushion. Is it decreasing? Yes. But I'm not going to sit here and say we're panicking. I'm not. We're not."

So, some of this slippage in April is exactly what Jordan feared. Struggling Milwaukee is on deck, one of those opponents that makes everything okay when something is ailing. But if the Wizards can't beat the Bucks here tomorrow night, then Cleveland and Charlotte after that, then those 32,000 playoff tickets that were scarfed up for the first two home games might be the only ones used around here.

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