Wizards Prefer The Role of Chaser

By Michael Wilbon
Monday, May 1, 2006

They'd rather be 13 behind than 14 ahead. The Washington Wizards can't stand prosperity. A big lead, as they reminded us Friday night, is positively the worst thing that can happen to them. A lead apparently puts the Wizards to sleep. But a double-digit deficit, one that threatens to end the season, is yummy -- just the thing to get their juices stirring enough to play their best, or something reasonably close to it.

The Wizards ought to spot the opponent a dozen points every night because usually the climb back gets their attention in a way nothing else does. They were a baker's dozen down a couple of times in yesterday's Game 4 with Cleveland. They were down 13 in the third quarter and LeBron James, who couldn't have been any more comfortable if he was playing H-O-R-S-E, was trying to find the Wizards' throat with his foot.

But that's just what the Wizards want. Actually, it's what they absolutely need. The biggest problem with the Wizards' Game 4 come-from-behind victory was that they got the lead too early. Of course, anything with more than, oh, 30 seconds to play is too early. Talk about needing a closer; the moment the Wizards' lead hit 10 points, 90-80, the trouble really began. It's always bases loaded, nobody out when the Wizards have a lead.

"We can't stand prosperity," Coach Eddie Jordan said, "but we are resilient enough. I don't want us to get into that mind-set that we have to fall behind in order to attack."

But it's too late, of course. The Wizards are already in that mind-set.

Gilbert Arenas said as much, how it's "easier to play from behind," because this group of players is better in a "nothing-to-lose" mind-set.

Arenas, trying to find that nothing-to-lose zone, went to the locker room at halftime and immediately changed every bit of his uniform, from his jersey to his shorts to his socks and shoes. And since the rest of the Wizards are slightly less, um, eccentric than Arenas, Jordan had to help the rest of the group along.

Jordan's remedy: Call no plays in the second half.

That's right, a coach who teaches an offense as patterned and as complex as the Princeton offense, told his team at halftime, "Go play."

Jordan said he had never done such a thing before, not to such a dramatic degree. He did it because he could sense his players were tight and because the Cavaliers, with some assistance from former Wizard Larry Hughes, had scouted Washington to death. Jordan could feel that the Cleveland players knew much of what was coming. They knew his "routes" to use Jordan's word.

With the offense already second-nature to the players, Jordan knew they wouldn't turn into the vintage UNLV of the early-1990s. He knew they would run things they'd been running, or at least practicing, for two years. So he told them: "Just go play. And loosen up. I'm not going to call plays."

Arenas probably benefited most from the Plan B. Refreshingly candid, Arenas admitted to feeling a little hung over from Friday night's Game 3 loss that should have been a 15-point Wizards victory. "We were really upset about Game 3," he said. "We let our city down."

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