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Wizards Know Better Than to Let Guard Down

Team Still Has a Long Road to Playoffs

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page D01

The Washington Wizards have been on quite a journey since they opened the season on Nov. 3 with an unlikely road win against the Memphis Grizzlies. With just eight healthy players, they rallied from a 19-point deficit to defeat a team that won 50 games last season, setting in motion what Coach Eddie Jordan likes to call the Wizards' "winning way."

"It made a statement -- we're going to come out and fight anyway," said point guard Gilbert Arenas, who watched that game on television at a Memphis sports bar with Larry Hughes while both players served one-game suspensions.

All-star guard Gilbert Arenas helped lead the Wizards to a surprising 30-22 mark in the season's first half. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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The Wizards will try to keep the ball rolling in the second half of the season.
Michael Wilbon: Ernie Grunfeld proves to be a Wizard in his own right.

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As the Wizards get set to begin the second half of the season tonight against the Grizzlies at MCI Center, they are closer to full strength than at any point -- forward Kwame Brown and Hughes are expected to return from injuries this week, possibly today -- and the stakes are much higher. The Wizards will try to make a playoff push after becoming just the sixth team in franchise history with 30 wins at the all-star break.

They have two all-stars in Antawn Jamison and Arenas; and Hughes was playing at an all-star level before breaking his thumb 5½ weeks ago. They have players who have accepted their roles without griping and a legitimate coach of the year candidate in Jordan.

Fearing that he would shake up something good, Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld said it is "very unlikely" that he will make a trade by tomorrow's deadline. "There's always conversations," Grunfeld said. "But we like the chemistry. We like the direction we're headed. But we also know there is a lot of work for us to do. Our goal is to make the playoffs."

At 30-22, the Wizards are the Eastern Conference's fifth-seeded team, but Jordan is being cautious. He has warned his players.

"Don't fall in the trap of people saying, 'You're going to be in the playoffs.' We're not in the playoffs," Jordan said. "People say, 'Playoffs are a given.' No they're not. We've got to continue to fight. . . . We talk about a 30-game stretch that's probably going to be the toughest 30-game stretch that you've ever had in basketball."

Just 12 of the Wizards' next 30 opponents have winning records, including the Grizzlies. But they have a far from favorable schedule, especially in March, when 10 of their 15 games will be away from home, including a five-game trip to the West Coast.

"We're not thinking about playoffs now," Arenas said. "We know this is when the real teams come out and play. The weaker teams decide, you only got 30 games left and you go on vacation. If we want to be a contending team in anything we have to come ready to play basketball."

The Wizards, however, are optimistic with Hughes and Brown returning soon. Grunfeld added that "getting Kwame and Larry back is almost like making a trade without giving anybody up."

Hughes, the league leader in steals, and Brown, the team's best low post defender and scorer, are expected to help the Wizards overcome what has been their most glaring weakness this season -- defense. The Wizards rank sixth in the NBA in offense at 101.5 points per game. But they have allowed three more total points than they've scored this season, ranking 29th in the league in scoring defense at 101.6 points per game.

The Wizards were consistently inconsistent without Hughes -- they lost two, won four, lost four, won four and lost three more, going 8-9. Hughes hopes to receive medical clearance today. "I really want to compete. I may not be ready but I'll probably still do it, because I just want to compete," said Hughes, still wearing a protective splint on his right thumb. "I can adjust to it. I can make some things happen where I don't put it at risk."

Jordan said Brown will be ready tonight. Brown, who averaged 5.6 points and 3.4 rebounds in 14 games, admitted that he came back "way too early" from his foot injury in December. "I had so much pain in my foot I couldn't even run hard," said Brown, who will be a restricted free agent this summer. "If I had sat out the whole time, maybe like Etan [Thomas], I'd be full speed right now. But it's hard to tell someone to stay off the court when all he knows is basketball."

Although his production was limited, Brown was shooting a career-high 50.8 percent and the team was 8-6 in the games he played. Brown also has slimmed down to 265 pounds. "He is healthier than he was when he first came back. He's a lot lighter, a lot quicker and more active out there," Jordan said. "I really would like to put him in the fire. We need to get him in rhythm with his teammates. His performance will dictate how much he'll play."

Reserve guard Juan Dixon will miss at least another week with a sprained right ankle, but Jordan is preparing for the new challenge of finding a rotation for a team that "certainly can go 12 deep," now that Thomas and guard Steve Blake are healthy. Thomas missed the first 32 games of the season with an abdominal strain and Blake has missed 35 with an ankle injury.

ESPN basketball analyst and former Washington Bullet Tim Legler said Jordan already has managed some difficult situations. "One of the toughest things to do in sports is reverse a losing culture," Legler said. "It was a losing environment down there. Almost to the point where you expected something to go wrong. That's difficult to overcome. He's dealing with a lot of young players, and he's handled it very well. When you have three scorers [Jamison, Arenas and Hughes] like that, and to keep all those guys happy, and get their touches, that's difficult for any coach. He's right there in the top five for the coach of the year."

In Jamison, Arenas and Hughes, the Wizards have three former Golden State Warriors attempting to become the first trio of teammates to average at least 20 points since Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin -- "Run TMC" -- did it in 1991 for the Warriors. When Wizards reserve forward Samaki Walker entered the league with the Dallas Mavericks in 1996, he played with a big three (Jim Jackson, Jamal Mashburn and Jason Kidd) that bickered and consistently lost.

"You had agents and outside forces; you got other people painting the picture in your head of what's going on. It led to the downfall," Walker said. "Here it's the opposite. They want to win."

Arenas is the first to credit his teammates for buying into the system and their roles. "Everyone took their roles and figured out [what] they're going to be," Arenas said. "Everyone is getting along. There's no feelings that somebody is getting all the glory."

But the job is far from complete.

"We've overcome some adversity with the injuries to Kwame and Etan and Larry, but we understand we have a long way to go," Grunfeld said. "The last 30 games, the intensity goes up, people are going to be jockeying for playoff position and we're going to have to be up to the task."

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