It sounded like a good thing seven weeks ago, picking the Washington Wizards to go deep into the playoffs. With a roster that seemed to include many skilled, athletic players -- young and old -- the Wizards appeared to have the potential to be very good. There was size, toughness, playoff experience and youthful exuberance. There were big scorers and defenders, and an established head coach. No teams in the Eastern Conference looked formidable, so I wrote that the Wizards could go to the Eastern Conference finals.


Luckily, misery has company. People who know more about the NBA than your friendly neighborhood columnist picked the Wizards to win a couple playoff series, too. To name two (and drag others into my predicament), there were Bill Walton of the Basketball Hall of Fame and Dr. David DuPree (the degree is in writing about basketball). With one-third of the season over, the Wizards are 12-16, which puts them tied for eighth place with Milwaukee.

The Wizards can hang with anybody, and by that I mean the likes of Dallas, San Antonio, Indiana and New Jersey -- four of the five best teams in the NBA -- for 45 of 48 minutes. But they can't close. They need Mariano Rivera or a 30-year-old Michael Jordan, but neither is warming up in the pen.

Without a closer, they are merely good enough to narrowly lose. They turn the ball over way too much and don't get nearly enough production from the front court, specifically Kwame Brown and Brendan Haywood. Two early bright spots, Juan Dixon and Jared Jeffries, are on the injured list. If Tony were writing this column, he would have referred to Curse 'O Les Boulez four times.

Doug Collins's patience is being sorely tested. Brown started the season like a house on fire, but his play has been spotty since. Why? The answer is easy: Like many youngsters in the NBA, Brown is from the Allen Iverson school; "What are we talking about, practice?" Brown doesn't yet get the connection between practice and performance. Recently, that caused the sage Charles Oakley to ask, "You think these young boys understand that their contract covers practices, too?" By the time Brown learns that practice, instruction and criticism are necessary to becoming a professional, he'll probably be playing elsewhere . . . though the people selecting him No. 1 in the draft should have anticipated this. Beyond that, Jerry Stackhouse's frustration boiled over Thursday night after another close loss, this one to a Detroit team the Wizards beat on the road recently.

No wonder my editor, already skeptical when I went out on that limb to start the season by using the P-word (playoffs), called this morning and said, "Isn't it time to eat your plate of crow?"

Probably, yes. The Wizards aren't going to anybody's conference finals. Forget for a moment about what they don't have; the Pacers, Nets and Hornets are too strong. All three can hold their own with Sacramento and Dallas. So I'm ready for a crow appetizer . . . but not an entree.

Ringing in my head are years and years worth of warnings from Jordan to never, ever judge an NBA season on what happens before Christmas. Jordan, who quite candidly said he got no sleep after his uncharacteristic turnover barrage Thursday, originally said the "end of December" was a reasonable time to see the team begin to put things together. Asked the same question again yesterday after practice, Jordan repeated, "the end of December."

This team, as any team Jordan plays on, takes its cue from him. It needs to take another from his comments yesterday. He talked about looking in the mirror, starting with himself, about the turnovers "that didn't make any sense, but that I have to own up to." Without mentioning names, he quickly added, "The thing you can't do is start dividing, pointing fingers at one another. The thing you have to do now is look in the mirror and ask yourself, 'What can I do to help this team?' This isn't the time to start giving up on things."

While sounding like a pat answer, this is a lesson unlearned in Los Angeles where the Lakers' best players, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, have indicted their teammates, on the record. And you see how much it has helped, right?

Jordan knows the season is a marathon and that unchecked nerves can sabotage teams. "End of December," he said, because so many new players had to be evaluated and incorporated.

Well, that's where we are now, so where are the Wizards? "What we've done the last three games [losses to San Antonio, Dallas and Detroit] is put ourselves in a position to win. . . . We can compete. But competing and winning are totally different things. We are competing now. We're just not winning because we're not doing the necessary things down the stretch: moving the ball, taking care of the ball."

The overly simplistic view is a loss is still a loss. But here's who the Wizards have on deck the next 13 games: Hawks, Spurs, Pacers, Bulls, Warriors, Raptors, Magic, Sixers and Nuggets at home; Orlando, Chicago, Boston and the Knicks on the road. That's nine home games and at least two very winnable road games. The Wizards, playing as they did at San Antonio, could, perhaps even should, win 10 of those 13. Even a 9-4 mark in those games puts the Wizards at 21-20, with a lot of games remaining against the likes of the Clippers, Nuggets, Heat, Knicks and Cavaliers.

Collins has increased the team's chances of winning by going with a veteran lineup, then using the kids to fill in. Dixon's return may help; Jeffries being out for the season will hurt. But Collins, Jordan, Oakley and assistant coach Patrick Ewing, frustrated as they may be, have to put their heads together and figure out some way to reach Brown. A 13-point, eight-rebound night from him could mean the difference between the Wizards making the playoffs and me, Walton, DuPree taking out the fork and settling in for a meal.