Back in October, when the Washington Wizards engaged in a comedic but unifying preseason skirmish with the Chicago Bulls, the number of people who could've foreseen that these teams -- which combined to win 48 games last season -- would play a meaningful game in mid-April probably wouldn't have filled the Wizards' locker room.
"I think we've come a long way," Coach Eddie Jordan said. "We've sort of accomplished a little bit more than we thought, when you talk about October."
Gilbert Arenas, left, and the Wizards host Ben Gordon and the Bulls in a game that is critical to playoff seedings for both teams.
(John McDonnell - The Washington Post and the AP)
_____From The Post_____
The Wizards can pull within one game of Chicago.
For the Bulls, the playoffs are a new experience.
The surprising rise of these young teams alone would be enough to attract interest for tonight's game, with the Wizards (42-35) trying to chase down the Bulls, who already have what the Wizards want: a playoff berth, a hold on the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and home-court advantage. Fans in attendance and those who watch at home should anticipate more than just the most important game played at MCI Center since the building opened in 1997.
They'll be looking to see if center Brendan Haywood will make a surprise return from his broken left thumb. And, if point guard Gilbert Arenas will resemble the player who had a career-high 44 points in a loss against Philadelphia or the one who had just eight points and a season-high 13 assists two days later in a win against Milwaukee. They'll also be anxious to see if the defensively challenged Wizards can keep the Bulls -- namely guards Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich -- from stampeding to the hoop.
"It's a huge game for both teams," Haywood said. "The Bulls need to win to maintain their spot. We need to win to because that'll put us one game behind them. It's going to be a big-time game. . . . I think everybody is going to be excited."
The Wizards will certainly be excited to have the 7-foot Haywood back in the lineup. Haywood, one of the participants in the preseason brawl with the Bulls, has missed the past 10 games since he fractured the tip of his left thumb on March 25. After meeting with a team physician yesterday, Haywood practiced with a protective splint but declared himself "a game-time decision."
"He was okay at practice. A couple of times he shook" the thumb, Jordan said, "but that's to be expected. We'll see how he responds. [Haywood's possible return] helps us; with his size and with his experience, obviously. It helps us with our depth. It'll help our defense. We'll see."
Jordan had to be encouraged with the way his team ended a five-game losing streak against Milwaukee, as center Etan Thomas and forward Kwame Brown scored 17 points each and combined to make 15 of 24 shots. Brown was also able to transform the jeers he received the previous two home games into cheers. "I wasn't really focusing on that," Brown said. "With fans, you can have one good game, but if I lay an egg [against the Bulls], it'll be the same way. I've got to have a good game every night."
But with Thomas and Brown providing inside scoring and forward Antawn Jamison scoring 32 points in his third game since being removed from the injured list with right knee tendinitis, Arenas was able to take an unusually passive approach on the offensive end. "If you pass and they make shots, everything looks easy," said Arenas, who attempted a season-low nine shots against the Bucks. "I'm on a high. I don't think I can be stopped. If the rest of the players aren't on highs, we can't go nowhere. You've got to get them the ball, let them feel good about themselves while we're making this push."
Asked which Arenas will be on the floor against the Bulls, Arenas said: "We'll see how the game goes. If they're scoring, keep feeding them. If they're missing, then I'll do me." He then began kicking his feet as he confidently strutted down the hallway toward an elevator. "That's talent. I'm multitalented. Like Bo Jackson!"
The Wizards and Bulls have been linked ever since Oct. 25, when guard Larry Hughes shoved Hinrich into a leaping Bulls forward, Luol Deng, setting off a scuffle that ended with Haywood and Bulls forward Antonio Davis wrestling at center court, while Bulls center Eddy Curry threw jabs from the side. "I think it showed a little bit of toughness on both of the teams' parts. That we were able to go in there, that everybody had each other's backs, stood up for each other," said Wizards forward Michael Ruffin, who pulled Davis off of Haywood. "That helped us to kind of get started as a team, to know that when we step out on the court, we have to play together and each player has to pick up for someone else."
They've split two hotly contested regular season games, with each team winning at home. But since they beat the Wizards, 97-90, at United Center on Feb. 25, the Bulls (44-33) have gone 16-9 and moved up four games on the Wizards, who have gone 11-12. "That's the drama of the NBA. I guess now we're in the hunter position and we want our spot back," Brown said. "We got knocked off the hill. We're trying to get back up."
"I like to be on the hunt," Arenas said. "When you're getting hunted, you always got to be on the run. Now, we're in a position to be in the back, looking up, it's a good challenge for us. We want that fourth spot so bad, and we have to play hard. When you have it, it's easier to relax."
Although the Wizards are in sixth in the East and could still get home-court advantage in the playoffs, Jamison doesn't want it. "I don't know six, man, I never heard of six. I wear number four," Jamison said. "So, the four spot is our goal. I understand we can still get home court with the sixth seed, but I want the four seed. Let's try to get that and we'll see what happens."