Now, It's Time To Take The Next Step

By Michael Wilbon
Monday, April 17, 2006

At some point, hopefully soon, the Washington Wizards will stop handing out T-shirts to celebrate making the NBA playoffs. It's the marketing equivalent of spiking the ball and doing an end zone dance for scoring a touchdown in the preseason. Getting into the playoffs, in professional basketball, isn't to be overtly celebrated, not when it just happened last season. More than half the league's 30 teams make it. For a franchise with real ambition, reaching the playoffs is to be expected, often a given. To borrow a phrase from old-school coaches, it's time for the Wizards to act like they've been there. The bet here is Shaq is not walking around South Beach wearing his "I'm In The Playoffs" T-shirt.

Anyway, yes, the Wizards qualified for the playoffs yesterday. Last season it was cause for a party. This year? It's exactly what they should have done -- only sooner. It never should have come to this, getting in after a five-game losing streak. And even yesterday's victory over Cleveland left plenty of room for concern. After a 35-21 third-quarter beatdown pushed the Wizards to a 26-point fourth-quarter lead, they needed their starters in the game to survive Cleveland's 15-0 run that pulled the Cavaliers within nine points, even though the Golden Child, LeBron James, rested on the bench most of that fourth quarter.

But ultimately, yes, the Wizards won. They reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since the late 1980s. They defeated the Cavaliers, a potential first-round opponent. They held on to the favorable fifth seeding. And if they're serious about doing something in the playoffs, and not just getting there, they'll play with the same desperation and sense of purpose tomorrow night at home against Milwaukee in what will certainly be a much more contentious game since the Bucks and Wizards will be fighting for that fifth spot to avoid getting crushed by the Pistons, Heat or Nets in the first round of the playoffs.

Fortunately for the franchise, the least impressed people of all as it relates to simply making the playoffs appear to be the Wizards players.

Gilbert Arenas treated it like someone of his status and ambition should. "I don't know if we're that excited," he said. "We've got a tough opponent coming in here Tuesday. And we need that one as much as we needed this one, today. We've been sitting in fifth place for months. We're supposed to have clinched five games ago. Then, we lost five in a row. That's nothing to be proud of. We still have to prove we're deserving of that fifth spot."

The Wizards, Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls are all still alive for the fifth spot, which would bring a first-round match with the Cavaliers, who have a rookie head coach and a franchise player who has zero playoff experience. All of the above are desperate to finish fifth because they all believe, with good reason, they can beat Cleveland. The Wizards, for example, are 3-1 against Cleveland this season. None of the above will beat Detroit, Miami or New Jersey.

The Wizards, having lost 16 straight to Miami, don't want to see any part of Miami. The Wizards might freak out if confronted by Miami of Ohio. The Wizards, with Milwaukee in here for the second game of a back-to-back set, need to beat the Bucks and then go to Detroit and beat the Pistons, who won't dare play their starters more than token minutes, to close out the regular season Wednesday night. The Pistons must have punched themselves out, having gone up 15-0 and 36-11 on the Knicks before sitting every player of consequence.

Still, because of the dramatic swings that have characterized the Wizards' season -- they can beat Detroit, San Antonio and Phoenix, but look downright feeble against Atlanta and Charlotte -- there's no real reason to trust them to do what they should do.

But it certainly helps that they have Caron Butler back in the lineup.

Any team has dozens of subtle developments over the course of a season. But the Wizards' season has been marked by two very obvious ones: Arenas becoming an all-NBA-caliber player, and Butler becoming essential to the team because of his toughness.

It's no coincidence that Butler's missing five games coincided with the team's five-game losing streak, or that the Wizards returned to winning ways yesterday with him back in the lineup for 42 minutes, scoring 21 points, grabbing eight rebounds and collecting four steals. "He gives us something different," Arenas said of Butler. "He's got that healthy Jerry Stackhouse, bully basketball type of game. He'll bang, he brings attitude, he plays really hard. He's the kind of player we need, somebody without a conscience."

The most important sequence of yesterday's game, as it relates to the big picture, was probably when Cleveland's 7-footer, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, slammed Arenas to the floor, only to be immediately confronted by Butler. Many players around the league feel the Wizards are purely a finesse team, that they can be bullied. Butler is the closest thing the Wizards have to a power player, an enforcer. And his toughness isn't just physical. His coaches and teammates have come to depend on him in this role. When the doctors and trainers told Butler he would likely miss three weeks with his banged-up thumb, Butler's answer was to put on his uniform for the next game. Ultimately, he missed nine days. The trainers gave him the option of wearing a brace, which Butler refused. Coach Eddie Jordan said his team "kinda rallied around" Butler's toughness and production.

"I feel very comfortable with that role, being relied upon for that," Butler said. "If you're not, your [focus] can wander . . . and who knows what happens down there at the end of the bench. There are a lot of stories down there."

The last place Butler will be is at the end of the Wizards' bench. He and Jared Jeffries will be the two players called upon, primarily, to guard LeBron in a playoff series. Winning yesterday was important because the Wizards got into the playoffs, but also because the gamesmanship began. "We were playing against a team that wanted to make a statement against us -- and weren't going to have it," Jordan said.

All the Wizards seemed to bristle just a little bit yesterday, which they're going to have to have a lot more of to hold on to the No. 5 spot and to be a serious threat when the playoffs begin this weekend. Jordan talked of blood spilled and bonds strengthened during the five-game losing streak, and of the relief of making the playoffs. Jordan also talked of the "intense stress" he was feeling, what with his team losing five straight games.

It's the stress that accompanies bigger and bigger expectations, the stress that comes with competing with the Heat and Pistons and Nets and all the other Big Boys who know that making the playoffs is the beginning of the real basketball season, the beginning of a new round of stress.

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