One year after winning 25 games, two years after Michael Jordan drove his black Mercedes out of MCI Center for the last time and about eight years after Chris Webber and Juwan Howard teased the populace with the promise of false hope, Washington is back in the playoffs. The Wizards have withstood a season filled with injuries and a late-season five-game slide to reach a plateau that the District hasn't seen since the team was known as the Bullets.
"It's a wonderful day for the franchise. I'm a fan as much as I am a coach," Coach Eddie Jordan, a native of Washington, said last night after the Wizards defeated the Chicago Bulls, 93-82, before 18,181 at MCI Center. "I'm happy for our fans. We have some solid character guys in our locker room, guys who are committed to being a good team and doing what it takes to win games at this level. We are still a young, growing team."
Center Brendan Haywood was activated before the game and immediately provided the defensive spark the Wizards have been missing for the past 10 games.
(Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)
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His left thumb heavily wrapped in tape, center Brendan Haywood laced up his shoes and explained why he returned to play last night against the Chicago Bulls. "This is probably the biggest game I've played since I've been a Washington Wizard," said Haywood, who missed the past 10 games after fracturing the tip of his left thumb in Los Angeles against the Clipppers on March 25. The 7-foot Haywood was expected to miss two to four weeks, and he returned in 2 1/2 weeks. "It probably would've been better for my thumb to wait until playoffs but basketball is not a game where you can just turn it on and off," he said. "You've got to go out there and get used to playing, bumping people and getting up and down the court -- shoot, just doing everything."
The Wizards went 5-5 without Haywood. To make room for him, rookie Peter John Ramos was put on the injured list with left knee tendinitis. Haywood was averaging career-highs with 9.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in his fourth season and said that he didn't want to come back slowly. "If you're not going to play the same game, you might as well sit down," he said. . . .
Asked last night if swingman Jarvis Hayes will miss the postseason, Coach Eddie Jordan said, "Probably so." Hayes, the Wizards' fourth-leading scorer this season, hasn't begun running since fracturing his right patella two months ago. He has missed the past 21 games. Jordan added that forward Antawn Jamison may play back-to-back games against New York and New Jersey if necessary. . . .
Forward Kwame Brown, the first No. 1 pick selected straight from high school, agreed with Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal that there is no need for a 20-year-old minimum age in the NBA. "I agree with him wholeheartedly. All he was saying was, why would you stop somebody" from going pro out of high school, said Brown, who was 19 when he was drafted in 2001. "Why would you stop someone from doing what they can do. That's unconstitutional. You can't do this because you're too young? There's more guys that do well than guys that aren't. There's no reason for it. People give the analogy of guys going to fight in a war, then why can't you go play basketball? It's much less dangerous, why can't I do it?" . . .
Guard Larry Hughes said he didn't see the positive impact of the preseason brawl the Wizards had with the Bulls on Oct. 25. "Naw, [it was] a negative. We lost some money," said Hughes, who was suspended one game without pay.
They had already handled their end of the deal with a win against the Bulls, but the players couldn't walk off the court until they knew that Indiana defeated New Jersey, which secured the franchise's first playoff berth since 1997. They nervously watched the video screen as Indiana closed out the Nets in the final seconds, but as the confetti fell from the rafters, most the players calmly put on playoff T-shirts over their uniforms and strolled toward the locker room. Only center Brendan Haywood showed some emotion as he lifted his hand toward the roof and smiled.
The young guys left the partying to 81-year-old owner Abe Pollin, who rose out of his seat in his box and lifted his arms high, swaying from side to side for something that took him two buildings, two nicknames and eight years to celebrate. After the game, a teary-eyed Pollin gave an emotional speech to the players in the locker room.
"He said that not only is he proud of us about being a playoff team, but about being good human beings," Jordan said.
Forward Antawn Jamison said he didn't want any part of the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference and in a game they had to win to give them any hope for the fourth seed, the Wizards (43-35) gave an inspired effort. Guard Larry Hughes led the Wizards with 23 points, point guard Gilbert Arenas had 21 and Jamison recorded his 23rd double-double of the season with 19 points and 14 rebounds.
"We just wanted to win," said Hughes, who led the Wizards with 23 points. "When I came here and I played with M.J., we had some injuries and we didn't finish the game out. Last year we had injuries and we never put a full team out. But I always believed that with the right chemistry and the right guys on the floor, our chances were high."
Think this game mattered to the Wizards? Then ask Haywood why he came back almost a week earlier than expected, left thumb wrapped with almost a foot of tape, to block four shots. Or Arenas, who swore that his team could play good defense when it had to, and helped hold the Bulls to 33.7 percent shooting. Or what about forward Jared Jeffries, who soared over Bulls forward Jared Reiner for a slam dunk that gave the Wizards a 71-52 lead in the third quarter and brought Hughes out of his seat on the bench. "Yeah! Yeah!" an approving Hughes screamed.
"It took the whole season to get the trust. Now we're getting the real Wizards fans. They were like, 'Oh, this guy went down, what's going to happen?' Now, it's like okay, they made the playoffs, they're getting there," Arenas said. "I guess I was a year off on my prediction, but a lot can happen in a season. We can do damage in the playoffs. It's going to be hard to beat us in seven games."
Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon had 21 apiece to lead the Bulls (44-34), who have a one-game lead over the Wizards. The Wizards have the same record as the fifth-place Pacers, who hold the tiebreaker over the Wizards. If the Wizards and Bulls meet in the playoffs, it could be one of the more heated series. After scuffling in the preseason, their bad blood got a little more intense when Bulls reserve forward Tyson Chandler was ejected in the first quarter for body-slamming Haywood and stepping on his midsection.
The Wizards jumped to a 28-6 lead and led by 23 in the third quarter after Jamison and reserve Steve Blake hit back-to-back three pointers. "This was our best start in a long time, if not all year," Jordan said.