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Wizards Waste No Time in Reveling

After Clinching Playoff Berth, Team Looks Ahead

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page D03

About 12 hours after they delivered the franchise's first playoff berth since 1997, the Washington Wizards were back on the same court at MCI Center, but the confetti and streamers that fell from the rafters Wednesday night had been swept away and the sound system was idle, as Kool & the Gang's "Celebration" was replaced by the sound of sneakers screeching across the court.

What hangover? Instead of reveling in ending an eight-year drought, the Wizards had an intense, physical practice, with center Brendan Haywood walking off the court rubbing his ribs and forward Kwame Brown tending to a deep scratch above his left eye afterward. Both players were suffering the effects of collisions with 7-foot-3 rookie Peter John Ramos. If the battle scars of the practice signaled anything, it's that the Wizards' work is far from done. "The celebrating is over," Coach Eddie Jordan said. "Now that we have clinched a playoff berth, we are a playoff team and we have to wear that medal of honor; finish up the regular season with that sort of crown on our head. We have to have respect for that accomplishment. We have to go out and play like that."

"We want that four spot, home-court advantage, by any means necessary," said Gilbert Arenas, center, who won't stand for the Wizards falling backward. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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The Wizards clinch a playoff spot with a 93-82 victory over Chicago on Wednesday.

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After a hard-fought 93-82 win against the Chicago Bulls, the Wizards (43-35) remain in the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference -- but they are only one game behind the Bulls for the fourth seed and home-court advantage in the playoffs as they prepare to host LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight. With four games remaining, the Wizards know they can't let up, especially with the Cavaliers, currently the seventh seed in the East, just three games behind. "We want that four spot, home-court advantage, by any means necessary," point guard Gilbert Arenas said.

"It's a sigh of relief to finally get in the playoffs, but . . . I think our mind frame is we have to win the rest of these games," forward Antawn Jamison said. "We're going to see what kind of character we have, because a lot of teams that never made it to the playoffs in awhile. When they finally make it, they kind of let up and cruise the last few games. We're trying to set a tone. We're trying to get an identity going into the playoffs, that we'll play hard no matter what. It should be no excuses why we don't still have a hunger about us."

Of the 16 teams that currently occupy playoff positions, the Wizards have the fewest players with postseason experience on the roster, with just Jamison, Larry Hughes and Anthony Peeler. "The lack of experience, and we're in a position to get home-court advantage, that's big. No one would've thought we'd be here," said Arenas, who leads the team in scoring and is the only starter who hasn't missed more than three games this season. "Even when we were getting hurt, we were still winning. We were hitting rock bottom, but we were finding ways to pull things out."

Jordan has kept the team together although it has lost 299 games because of suspensions, injuries and illness -- 75 more games than all of last season, when the Wizards won just 25 games. "I think we've overcome a lot. Other teams have had injuries, I think we've had more than our share," President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld said. "But I'm proud of the way we've come together and competed on a nightly basis. It's a credit to Eddie and our staff. It tells us a lot about the character of our team."

With the exception of Jarvis Hayes, who likely will miss the remainder of the season and the playoffs, the Wizards have begun to get back their entire roster. Peeler practiced for the first time in almost two weeks yesterday and could return to action soon. Haywood returned after just 2½ weeks away with a broken left thumb to have an immediate impact on the defensive end, blocking four shots and grabbing 11 rebounds in his return against the Bulls. Jamison has averaged 23.8 points in his first four games since being removed from the injured list with right knee tendinitis, and he anticipates finishing out the regular season, including the back-to-back games against New Jersey and New York. "The way it looks, it's going to come down to the last two games anyway," Jamison said. "The knee feels great. It's working out pretty well."

Even with most of their pieces in place, the Wizards realize that they will go deep in the playoffs only if they can commit to playing defense. The Wizards held the Bulls to just 34 percent shooting on Wednesday. But Arenas wasn't satisfied after the Bulls shot just 17 percent and trailed 28-12 in the first quarter.

"I was mad, because I don't think they should've scored that extra six" points, Arenas said. "After that lead, we started letting up. I'm thinking, 'I've seen this tape before. This is what happens. You start letting layups come through. You stop putting your hands up on jumpers. What's going on fellas?' " Arenas said. "We're just playing regular defense. That's what you're going to see in the playoffs. You're going to see a lot of pulling, a lot of fouling, all the dirty players, this is where they shine."

The Wizards have been playing physical games for the past few weeks, but Chicago's Tyson Chandler took the rough play to another level when he was ejected after he grabbed Haywood by the throat, slammed him to the floor and appeared to kick Haywood in the midsection. "It was just a cheap shot," said Haywood, who was suspended three games after sparring with Bulls forward Antonio Davis in the preseason.

"It was a sucker move. The bottom line is, whenever we see each other in public, he never has anything to say then. Who's tough with a bunch of referees around? Nobody. It was a weak move," Haywood said. "If you go to the playoffs, you got to keep your head. Me and Tyson never got along, for some reason he has some sort of vendetta against me. Maybe I'm dating one of his sisters or something, I don't know. Y'all can quote me, I don't care. What is he going to do to me?"

Chandler tried to play down any feud with Haywood, saying: "It's not as intense as it's made out to be. I'm not going to fight somebody that I watched one of my teammates chase out of the arena before he would turn around and fight him. So it's blown out of proportion."

Told of Chandler's comments a day later, Haywood said: "I'm not going to get into that. I'm not trying to give the league any more money, so they don't have to worry about me fighting anybody."

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