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Wizards Add a Little Bit of Magic

Hall of Famer Gives Team Some Words of Encouragement

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page E01

The Washington Wizards didn't necessarily need magic to win their past three games, clinch the franchise's first playoff berth in eight years, overcome a season filled with injuries or reverse a five-game losing streak. Then again, considering the long run of bad basketball in the District in recent years, maybe they did.

Either way, Coach Eddie Jordan didn't see the harm in asking former teammate Magic Johnson to speak to his team after practice yesterday. Jordan wasn't worried that the Wizards were going to slip and stumble through the final three games of the season, but can it hurt to hear words of encouragement from a Hall of Famer with five NBA championship rings and nine NBA Finals appearances?

"You listen to what someone like that says . . . and you run with it," Washington's Gilbert Arenas, above, said of Magic Johnson's pep talk. (Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)

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"It wasn't like we were dropping off and we needed a Magic Johnson; it's more of the gravy on the potatoes," said Jordan, who teamed with Johnson to win an NBA championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982. "He was right on, man. And our guys enjoyed it. They know that he is a part owner of the Lakers and that he wouldn't have given them that speech if the Lakers were in the playoffs. We got a good deal there."

Johnson, who also serves as a basketball analyst on TNT, was in town hosting a three-on-three charity tournament at MCI Center and spoke with the Wizards for about 15 minutes, telling them what to expect when many of them reach uncharted postseason territory next weekend. "I just told them they need to pay attention to detail, the little things -- rebounding, defense and turnovers," Johnson said. "That's going to make them successful the last couple of games but also [during] the playoff run."

The Wizards (44-35) will play their final home game of the season this afternoon against the Charlotte Bobcats, then finish the season in New Jersey and New York. They trail the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference by 1 1/2 games for the fourth seed and home-court advantage in the first round, but Jordan said his team cannot worry about the teams they are chasing or the teams that are chasing them.

"We can't control what anybody else does," he said. "We just want to continue to win. We're trying to get our 45th [win] next game -- and that's a good number for us after we won 25 games last year."

Johnson said he felt at home talking to the Wizards. He played three seasons with Jordan. He was a high school all-American with Wizards assistant Mike O'Koren. Assistant Phil Hubbard unsuccessfully tried to recruit Johnson to the University of Michigan. Johnson coached and played with guard Anthony Peeler. He plays summer pickup ball with director of player development Mitchell Butler and he has known President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld for several years.

"So, it's like, all my family in here," Johnson said, laughing. "Eddie is a tremendous coach and he knows he has a young team and he gives them directions and lets them play basketball. He's been in a winning situation, so he understands that. Ernie's been in a winning situation, so he knows what that franchise needs. I give them a whole lot of credit because even though he's had a lot of injuries, they still have played well."

And Johnson believes the Wizards can do damage in the postseason.

"When you've got three scorers, guys that can potentially go for 20 points, like [Antawn] Jamison, [Larry] Hughes and [Gilbert] Arenas, I wouldn't want to be playing these guys. If they can all get hot together, they can beat anybody in the league. This is a dangerous team. People [are] not going to want to tangle with them in a seven-game series."

Johnson played alongside Byron Scott during the Showtime era but said he has never seen a backcourt similar to Arenas and Hughes, who are averaging 47.8 points, 10.9 rebounds and 9.9 assists this season.

"No, they do it in so many ways," Johnson said. "You don't get to see that combination of athletes, big, strong, fast and can go inside and outside. Normally, somebody can just shoot the jump shot. They can put it on the floor and go past you and dunk on you. I don't know if you'll ever see two guys score 25 apiece, and still get five, six rebounds and six, seven assists. That's hard to beat."

Arenas and Hughes combined to score 64 points with 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a 119-111 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday. When told of Johnson's comments, Hughes said, "We feel like we're making some noise. We know we've got people around the league taking notice. The main reason is because we're winning. If we weren't winning and on a good team, I'm sure people wouldn't pay us any attention."

"I'm flattered. It's an honor," said Arenas, who was a Lakers fan growing up in North Hollywood, Calif. "You listen to what someone like that says. And you take it. You take it and you run with it."

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