It was only a few days ago that LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers came into MCI Center with the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference firmly in their control. Now, after losing three straight -- including that game against the Wizards -- the Cavaliers have been shoved aside by Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and the resurgent New Jersey Nets, who host Washington tonight in a key game for both teams at Continental Airlines Arena.
Sunday's last-second victory over Charlotte moved the Wizards (45-35) one game behind the Chicago Bulls for the fourth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. If the Wizards beat New Jersey tonight and finish the regular season with a victory over the New York Knicks, there is a chance they could leap past the Bulls, grab the fourth seed and have home-court advantage in a first-round playoff series.
The Bulls (46-34) play the Knicks in Chicago tonight and finish the regular season at Indiana tomorrow. The Wizards hold the potential tiebreaker over the Bulls because they won the season series.
"We have to win these two games and hope the Bulls stumble somewhere," said Wizards forward Antawn Jamison, whose running layup with 1.3 seconds remaining gave Washington a 106-104 victory over Charlotte on Sunday. "But we can't do anything if we don't win the first one. The rest of it is out of our control."
Washington is ensured of finishing no worse than fifth in the Eastern Conference because the Pacers (43-38) lost, 92-88, last night at Orlando.
For the Nets (40-40), tonight's game carries even greater importance. The Nets hold a tiebreaker over Cleveland so the math is simple: Win the final two games and the eighth spot is theirs. It's been a stunning change of fortune for a Nets team that appeared dead earlier in the season. Sunday's 104-83 home victory over Philadelphia was New Jersey's 13th victory in the last 17 games and pulled the Nets to .500 for the first time since they were 2-2 in early November.
The Nets, who finish with games against Washington and at Boston, trail seventh-place Philadelphia by one game and hold a tiebreaker over the 76ers. New Jersey has overcome the loss of leading scorer Richard Jefferson, who has not played since Jan. 8 due to a wrist injury, because Kidd and Carter have jelled much faster than anyone could have imagined when Carter was acquired in a trade with Toronto back in December.
Gone is the indifferent-looking Carter who shunned aggressive moves to the basket during his last 2 1/2 seasons in Toronto, where he had once been revered. The Carter who torched the 76ers for 43 points on Sunday is the player who has been mostly missing in recent seasons. Playing with Kidd, who registered the 67th triple-double of his career Sunday, appears to have rejuvenated Carter.
Kidd's playmaking means more fast-break opportunities for Carter, and the Nets appear to be feeding off that offense. New Jersey is 19-4 when Carter scores 30 or more points. To get a win tonight, the Wizards will certainly have to put on a better defensive performance than they did Sunday, when a depleted Charlotte team was allowed to take jump shot after open jump shot. Despite playing without leading scorer and rookie of the year candidate Emeka Okafor, the Bobcats shot 50.6 percent from the field and were in position to win until the Wizards came up with a few key defensive plays in the final minutes.
"That wasn't playoff defense" on Sunday, Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said. "Only at the end. But I think, offensively, we are close to competing in the playoffs at the highest level."
Jordan will continue to tweak and shape his player rotation with the playoffs in mind. Veteran guard Anthony Peeler played for the first time since March 3 on Sunday and reported no soreness in his knee following the game. Jordan must decide how many minutes Peeler needs to get ready for the playoffs and how Peeler's role might affect the playing time of reserve guard Juan Dixon.
Also, forward Michael Ruffin, who missed his first game of the season Sunday because of heel soreness, is expected to return to action tonight, and Jordan has said that he would like to create some playing time for Ruffin, Kwame Brown and Etan Thomas in the final two games.
According to point guard Gilbert Arenas however, the goal for the final two games remains the same regardless of the various playoff implications.
"We want to finish the season strong, winning," Arenas said. "You want to go into the playoffs playing good basketball, so hopefully, that will carry right on over."