In Orlando, First Place Is at Stake

Wizards center Brendan Haywood, left, and Magic big man Dwight Howard will pick up where they left off. The Wizards won, 112-111, at home Dec. 29.
Wizards center Brendan Haywood, left, and Magic big man Dwight Howard will pick up where they left off. The Wizards won, 112-111, at home Dec. 29. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 19, 2007

Coming into this season, the Washington Wizards knew that the road to the top of the Southeast Division would go through Miami, home of the NBA champion Heat.

However, Washington's players and coaches also understood that another Florida team, the Orlando Magic, had the potential to be a roadblock to a division title.

The Wizards (22-16) enter tonight's game at Orlando (22-17) with a half-game lead in the division race. The Wizards and Magic split a pair of previous matchups, with each winning at home, and they have one more regular season meeting, April 17 at Verizon Center.

The Wizards have won consecutive games, but both came at Verizon Center where they are 16-3. They've lost four straight on the road and recently resembled the offensively disjointed, defensively uninterested team that opened the season by losing its first eight road games.

In consecutive road losses at Milwaukee, Toronto, Oklahoma City and San Antonio, they've allowed an average of 108 points and shot worse than 47 percent in each game. Gilbert Arenas was held to 19 points at Milwaukee, 23 at Oklahoma City and 17 at San Antonio. He made 25 of 80 shots in the four losses combined.

Orlando has lost three straight but those came during a rough West Coast trip. The Magic has won four consecutive games in its home building, which was recently renamed Amway Arena.

"We know what to expect," said Wizards forward Caron Butler, who finished with 27 points and a career-high 10 assists and scored the game-winning basket on a dunk in Wednesday's 99-98 win over the New York Knicks at Verizon Center. "They have a great one-two punch with Grant Hill and Dwight Howard and they have some guys like [Hedo] Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson who can knock down shots, so we're going to have to play well. It's an important game for both teams."

The Magic has been hampered by a few brutal scoring droughts in recent games. Orlando failed to score for the first 4 minutes 53 seconds in a five-minute overtime of an 84-78 loss to the Hornets on Tuesday night, went the final 2:53 without a point in a 107-101 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Saturday and managed one point in the final 1:21 in a 109-106 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday.

A lack of execution and playmaking in the late stages of close games has been a major reason why Orlando has gone 9-13 since opening the season 13-4. One problem is that unlike the Wizards, who can ride Arenas, Butler or Antawn Jamison at the end of a game, the Magic lacks a true go-to scorer.

Howard is growing into one of the league's few dominant post players -- he's second in the NBA with 28 double-doubles and leads the league in rebounding (12.6 per game) -- but is still developing and often faces double teams with no sure shooters to whom to pass. Following the loss to the Hornets in Oklahoma City on Monday, Nelson told the Orlando Sentinel, "It was almost like we were all looking around to see who's going to do it."

An example of Orlando's late-game shortcomings came at the end of Washington's 112-111 home win on Dec. 29. After Butler made a baseline jumper, giving the Wizards a one-point lead with 44 seconds remaining, Orlando's Keyon Dooling got a decent look at a potential game-winner but his runner from about 15 feet missed everything.

The Wizards have been more successful at the end of close games, and the way they won Wednesday night -- when the Knicks elected to double-team Arenas but got burned because DeShawn Stevenson kept his poise and drove to the basket before finding Butler for the game-winner -- gave opponents something extra to prepare for.

"Ever since I've been here, we've always had a team that is poised," Jamison said. "No matter what the situation is, no matter how much we might be down, we don't get too rattled, and it's a team that has matured. Gil's done a great job of hitting some clutch shots down the stretch and that's opened some things up for the rest of us."

Wizards Note: Wizards owner Abe Pollin is recovering at home from a small fracture in his pelvis, a team spokesman said. The 83-year-old fell while exercising and spent a few days in a local hospital last week. The injury did not require surgery. Pollin is expected to return to the office in three to four weeks.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company