You don't have to do much to contend in the Eastern Conference, at least for a playoff spot. You don't have to play spectacularly or even particularly well night after night. But the one thing you have to do is something the Wizards can't do: beat the beatable teams at home. Once again, the Wizards failed to do that last night. They couldn't beat the Milwaukee Bucks, a team they're battling for one of the final two playoff spots. And as a result, all that playoff talk ought to be reduced to a whisper.
We're not accustomed to big-stakes pro basketball games around here. The case can be made that last night's game against Milwaukee was the highest-stakes game the franchise has had this late in the season since 1998, back in the Chris Webber-Juwan Howard days. But last night had that urgent feel to it, what with the house packed shoulder to shoulder and Michael Jordan feeling well enough to score 27 points and grab nine rebounds. Here's what was at stake: A Wizards victory would have put them a full game ahead of Milwaukee for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. And it would have amounted to a two-game lead, since the Wizards would have captured the season series and the first tiebreaker. And with Orlando's home-court loss to the Knicks, the Wizards would also have crept within a half-game of Orlando, with the Magic coming to Washington on Tuesday.
In the East, all you want to do is get in the playoffs, because there's nobody to fear at the top, not the Nets, not the Pistons whom the Wizards have beaten twice this season, not even the Pacers, who have no dependable veteran past Reggie Miller. Just get in, be healthy, and you never know.
But the Wizards can't get there, not by losing to Milwaukee at home on a night when Christian Laettner gives 'em 19 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists. Not when the Wizards shoot better from the three-point line, better from the foul line, and play even on the boards. With only 20 games left, 13 of them on the road and six out West, you can't lose to Bucks at home. And it's going to be tough for them as long as Tyronn Lue is out, which is a shame since he was just starting to really make the offense go and Juan Dixon isn't a playmaker. Of all the injuries -- Etan Thomas, Jahidi White, Jared Jeffries -- Lue being out with this separated shoulder is an absolute crippler when it comes to the Wizards playing efficient offense.
The bottom line, as Doug Collins said, was "a tough, tough loss." Some games are tough to figure, but not this one. The Wizards shot 41 percent and appeared to be in some frantic race down the court for three quarters, by which time they were down 13. "Offensively, we were as impatient as we've been all season," Collins said. "Were in such a hurry . . . we didn't get to our spots, we ran on top of each other." If you sat close enough, you could hear Collins screaming, "Slow down! Slow down!" at his team. Impatience on offense led to a scramble on defense, and the Wizards couldn't locate Sam Cassell or Gary Payton (42 points combined, 12 assists, 53 percent shooting) which is suicide.
There's no fault with the Wizards' effort, just their execution, and maybe their temperament.
One of the criticisms of Collins in previous stops, at Chicago and Detroit, was that he only knew how to ride a team, that he went to the whip too much and too soon. Whether it was fair or not, he can't be accused of that now. For weeks, Collins has sensed these players, besides Jordan and Charles Oakley, have been fragile. So he's picked his spots. "I sure tried to downplay the game," he said. "I didn't want them to feel tense. . . . I can't do that with this team, 'Boy, this is a must win, a must win.' The bigger the game, the less I say to them. . . . You have to be as a coach what your teams needs from you."
Collins has to play it that way because Kwame Brown has never been in a pro game with the heat turned up, neither has Brendan Haywood, nor Larry Hughes, nor for all his wondrous collegiate play has Dixon. It's been a while for Laettner. The harder they all tried last night, the more they bobbled passes or blew open layups or lost a man on defense. You're not going to beat Payton and Cassell that way, and you're not going to beat Tracy McGrady, either.
The Bucks at home, Knicks on the road, Magic at home were three games the Wizards had to have . . . well, at the very least the two at home. And they're already 0-1, with the Knicks coming off that surprise victory in Orlando.
But it's been like this all season. Nobody should be the least surprised if the Wizards beat the Knicks on Jordan's final trip to the Garden, then come home and lose to T-Mac and the Magic. Funny how T-Mac initially hated seeing his friend Mike Miller dealt to Memphis, but now has to like the way shooter Gordan Giricek and rebounder Drew Gooden have energized his team. I thought it would be difficult for the Bucks to win stressful games with all the shooters (Payton, Cassell, Tim Thomas, Anthony Mason, Michael Redd, Desmond Mason) they now have.
But they stole a critical game from the Wizards last night, the kind of game that leaves a coach and the star player without sleep. Ultimately, the Wizards will look back and find the two losses that were season killers had nothing to do with any of the contenders, losses even worse than this one to Milwaukee. The two losses to Toronto, the first when Vince Carter was injured and the Raptors were using players on 10-day contracts, has to be the worst loss in the NBA this season. Losses at Chicago and at Memphis didn't help, either, but at least they came on the road. The loss to Dallas, to use Jordan's analogy, was the birdie the Wizards needed after those Toronto bogeys. But they couldn't hold on to beat Dallas.
And now there aren't very many chances to make up for the ones that got away. Where are the Wizards going to win, in Los Angeles against the Lakers? Against Sacramento here in April when the Kings could be playing for home-court advantage in the playoffs?
"We progress, then regress in the same week, which only gives us more ground to make up," Jordan said. "We've been given great opportunities, and it's amazing how many games we've given away against teams we should have beaten."
Jordan made sure his listeners knew the Wizards were "still in the thick of things," and they may indeed be. But time and home games are running out in a hurry.