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  •   For Wizards, It's Wait Until Next Year

    By Ric Bucher
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday April 20, 1998; Page D1

    Wizards logo
    With the gruesome fascination of motorists passing a roadside accident, the Washington Wizards couldn't stop from taking glimpses at their televisions yesterday as the New Jersey Nets defeated the Detroit Pistons to snare the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff berth and thereby add one last disappointment to the Wizards' 1997-98 season.

    "I wasn't going to [watch], but like an idiot, I did," said Wizards Coach Bernie Bickerstaff. "It reaffirmed two things — one, I shouldn't have watched, and two, why would you ever put your destiny in someone else's hands, especially someone who doesn't have your best interests at heart?"

    The Wizards had hoped that their improbable four-game winning streak to close the season would be enough to get them into the playoffs despite a number of earlier disappointing losses to some of the league's worst teams, but they needed the New Jersey Nets and the Orlando Magic to lose yesterday for that to happen.

    The Magic fell to the Charlotte Hornets, finishing a game behind the Wizards. But the Nets came through with a 114-101 victory over the Detroit Pistons, despite playing without two starters, point guard Sam Cassell (bruised back) and center Jayson Williams (broken right thumb).

    Veteran forward Harvey Grant, watching from his home in Glenn Dale, sensed early that the Pistons were not going to prevail for the Wizards, especially with the way veteran point guard Sherman Douglas took over for Cassell. "I kind of knew from the beginning," Grant said. "The guys who had to step up, stepped up. Sherman went out and carried the team, basically."

    Grant also couldn't find fault with the Pistons, who did not overextend themselves in pursuit of the victory, as reflected by veteran guard Joe Dumars playing only 12 minutes — none in the second half.

    "I thought we put ourselves in a position to make the playoffs, but anytime you have your playoff hopes in someone else's hands, that's bad," Grant said.

    Bickerstaff also suggested that the Wizards had no one but themselves to blame, noting that their woeful free throw shooting probably cost them 10 games alone.

    "I have to give credit to the guys who stepped up at the end," Bickerstaff said. "It would not have been backing in if we had made it. But when you talk about the enemy, the enemy is us. There are no excuses. We didn't get it done."

    The Wizards' lack of concentration at various times this season was even apparent to their opponents and the Nets (43-39) credited that with being the difference. Williams, still referring to the Wizards by their previous name, said: "The Washington Bullets do deserve to be in the playoffs with all that talent. You've got to have more focus, though. Our focus was better."

    Douglas attributed the Wizards' downfall to their off-the-court problems, which included a fight between teammates Rod Strickland and Tracy Murray, the unresolved Jan. 20 case in which Chris Webber was charged with three misdemeanors and six traffic violations after being pulled over for speeding and then Webber and Juwan Howard being named in an April 6 sexual-assault complaint stemming from a late-night party at Howard's house.

    "They have too much talent to be fighting for the eighth spot," Douglas said. "They should be in the top of the league. [This] isn't the situation they should be in on this day. Obviously it's hard because all the outside things are a distraction. That's tough. They're probably not concentrating enough on basketball and that has an effect."

    Exactly what that effect will be is up to General Manager Wes Unseld. Unseld indicated he wouldn't have been satisfied with his team's performance this season even if the Nets had lost, but he declined to discuss in detail its shortcomings or what he plans to do.

    "I'm not going to try to get into assessments now," Unseld said, "but I think everybody, of course, is disappointed. I'm not going to get into any of my plans because I haven't made any."

    The Wizards played the entire season without 7-foot-7 Gheorghe Muresan, who strained a tendon in his right ankle over the summer while shooting a movie with Billy Crystal. Injuries also cost them sharpshooter Tim Legler (74 games missed, torn right hamstring), Howard (16 games, sprained left ankle), Webber (8 games, strained right shoulder) and point guard Rod Strickland (last six games, torn left thigh muscle).

    Staff writers Jennifer Frey, in East Rutherford, N.J., and Toni Locy, in Washington, contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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