By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 5, 2008
When the Washington Wizards ended a seven-season playoff drought with a victory over the Chicago Bulls on April 13, 2005, a sellout crowd at Verizon Center erupted in wild celebration. Balloons were released to the rafters, T-shirts commemorating the occasion were tossed to the crowd and players reacted with pure joy.
Last night, when the Wizards clinched their fourth straight playoff appearance with a 109-95 victory over the dreadful Miami Heat, the reaction from the crowd was the basketball equivalent of a golf clap, and players reacted with relief rather than excitement.
While the 2004-05 team could bask in the satisfaction of making a once-proud franchise relevant again, these Wizards know they will be judged by what they do in the postseason.
"When I first got here, the team had been bad for so long, just us making to the playoffs gave the fans something to cheer about," said center Brendan Haywood, who has been a Wizard since the 2001-02 season. "Now that we've made it four years in a row, it's like: 'All right, we've seen you get there; now let's win some games and do something.' We got out of the first round that first year, but now they want to see us get to a conference championship. So, we're happy to be there but at the same time, that's not good enough."
The Wizards (39-37) won without all-star forward Antawn Jamison, who sprained his right shoulder late in Wednesday's home loss to Milwaukee, and are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with six games remaining.
The Heat (13-63) kept things interesting by connecting on a franchise-record 19 three-pointers, but the Wizards built an 18-point second-quarter lead and never led by fewer than nine in the second half.
Caron Butler led the Wizards with 29 points on 11-of-18 shooting, and Andray Blatche played one of his strongest games in weeks en route to posting 17 points with seven rebounds.
In his second game back after missing 66 games because of a left knee injury, Gilbert Arenas sparked a 16-6 first-quarter run by compiling four of his eight assists. Arenas, who has not spoken to reporters in several days, added 13 points and committed only one turnover in just more than 20 minutes.
After connecting on his first four shots and scoring 17 points in 19 minutes Wednesday night against Milwaukee, Arenas didn't shoot as well -- he was 4 of 10 -- but he played a better all-around floor game.
On a second-quarter play, Arenas sprinted upcourt, received a long pass, gathered himself and then tossed a no-look alley-oop pass to rookie Nick Young, who dunked the ball to give the Wizards a 53-37 lead.
The Wizards have been forced to play at a slower pace without Arenas all season but he helped them post 20 fast-break points last night.
"We haven't had that in a long time and the byproduct of those fast-break points was Gilbert Arenas, when he has the basketball and the way he pushes it," said associate head coach Mike O'Koren, who handled the pre- and postgame news conferences for Coach Eddie Jordan, who has been battling flu-like symptoms and a severe sinus headache. "Our big guys, they see a lob pass or a pass ahead and they are going to run extra. That's a big reason why we won this game, we got easy buckets."
Arenas will face another test tonight when the Wizards play at Chicago. It will be his first back-to-back games since Nov. 8 and 9 when he complained of pain and swelling in his surgically repaired left knee.
O'Koren said the coaching staff is under strict orders from team medical personnel to play Arenas between 20 and 25 minutes a game.
For the Heat, the game's outcome mattered little because forward Alexander Johnson was injured in a brutal fourth-quarter collision with a teammate and was taken to a hospital where he underwent a CT scan.
"The game is irrelevant," a shaken Heat Coach Pat Riley said. "The guy was hit real hard. He got hit in the temple, and he's just not responding well. He was breathing, but he's not responding to who he is and where he's at. . . . This godforsaken season has got to be over with."