By defeating Milwaukee tonight at MCI Center, Washington would move a game ahead of the Bucks for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot and win the head-to-head tiebreaker. More importantly, say the Wizards, a victory might finally drive home the point that this is do-or-die time.

"We've got to look at each game as a must win," small forward Jerry Stackhouse said. "We're not going to win all the games but playing a team like Milwaukee or a team like Orlando, who are right there in last [playoff] spots not only gets us a game up but it knocks them down one. You'd love for it to come down to a game like that at the end of the season to be able to put us in or take them out."

The Wizards and Bucks, both 30-31, have each won once in their three-game series. Tonight's winner will gain the edge for a postseason berth if they end the season with the same record.

Adding to the drama will be a healthier Michael Jordan -- who did not practice yesterday but should be in better shape after another day of treatment for back spasms -- against Gary Payton, recently acquired from Seattle.

Jordan and Payton are their squads' most playoff-seasoned players and they know what it takes to win at this point of the year: desire.

"You can't just give away games," Jordan said after scoring 10 points and grabbing nine rebounds in 24 minutes during Washington's 99-80 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday. "I have [21] games left. I just want to play."

After the game with the Bucks, the Wizards on Sunday will be in New York, where they will face the Knicks, who are just four games back. Then Orlando, 11/2 games ahead of Washington, will come to town Tuesday. This is the Wizards' most crucial stretch of the season.

"It's not make-or-break but with only nine wins on the road it would put us in a tough spot if we have to go out and try to make the playoffs by winning on the road," Coach Doug Collins said.

The Wizards have just eight home games left -- they end the month with a six-game Western Conference road trip -- and even winning them all would leave them short of the 41 victories Collins thinks it would take to make the playoffs. So Washington has already put itself in a position of having to win away from home to get to postseason.

The good news for the Wizards: They seem to be getting healthier.

Jordan, who also has a bruised right thigh, walked with relative normalcy yesterday after receiving treatment. Guard Larry Hughes's sprained right ankle, which sidelined him for six games, seems not to have bothered him over the past two games. Point guard Tyronn Lue (separated left shoulder) could be back by Sunday. Bruising center Jahidi White, who saw his first action Wednesday after rehabilitating his surgically repaired left knee, could give Washington some muscle in limited minutes.

In addition, center Brendan Haywood and power forward Christian Laettner -- and occasionally forward Kwame Brown -- have provided a much more substantial inside presence of late, especially when it comes to rebounding. The trio combined for 32 rebounds against the Clippers, who were without injured forward Elton Brand and center Michael Olowokandi.

"When our big guys play well that makes us a totally different team," Collins said.

Added Haywood: "When we step up it definitely opens up a lot of things for the team. You know what you're going to get out of Michael and Stack. With us, it's game to game depending on how teams are playing. It also depends on how aggressive we are. When guys take it to the cup it's easier to get rebounds, and that's what has been happening. When we settle for jump shots and play passive as a team it kind of rubs off on everybody."

Jahidi White, Wizards beat Wang Zhizhi, Clippers. But they can't duck fact their main competition for last playoff spot is the Bucks.