The Washington Wizards have one last chance to change their image as an inconsistent team that struggles on the road when they begin a six-game Western Conference road trip tonight in Phoenix.
"We've talked about it long enough," guard Larry Hughes said. "We're right there, up and down with the eighth [and final] playoff spot [in the Eastern Conference]. This is going to tell where we're going to be at."
The Wizards (32-35) enter tonight's game with the Suns (35-32) -- who are in a battle with Houston for the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference -- a half-game behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the final playoff spot. If the Wizards and Bucks tie, Milwaukee would win the tiebreaker based on head-to-head meetings.
Adding to the intrigue, the New York Knicks, seemingly destined for the draft lottery after struggling early, are within 21/2 games of tying Washington.
Looking over their shoulders is the last thing the Wizards need, Coach Doug Collins said. He knows all too well that the Wizards have not responded well to any type of pressure this season. Even his simple challenge of asking players to battle for home-court advantage earlier in the season backfired. That is why he is shying away from placing too much importance on the entire road trip, even though he knows how crucial it is, claiming Washington has to win at least nine more games to make it to the playoffs.
"It's too overwhelming to look at six road games," Collins said. "We're going to go play Phoenix and then after that, we'll go to Golden State."
The Wizards have won just nine times on the road all season and have lost 10 of their last 12 away from MCI Center, where they defeated three of the teams they will face on this road trip -- Phoenix, the Lakers and Denver.
"To come off a good win, we could have put ourselves in a good situation going on the road," guard Michael Jordan said after Tuesday's home loss to the Detroit Pistons. "That's the best-case scenario. Now you've got to look at the worst-case scenario."
Jordan said Washington must adopt an "us against the basketball world" attitude on this sojourn and got things started by saying, "No one expects us to do well so what's the purpose other than to go out there, let it go and see what happens."
Of the 16 teams in both conferences in playoff position, all have at least 11 road victories. After this road trip, the Wizards have to play five of their last nine games away from home, including the season finale at Philadelphia. So the math is easy: Washington must win on the road if it wants to get into the postseason.
The Wizards won three of seven games out West at this same juncture last season, leaving them with one fewer win and one more loss (31-36) than this year's team. However, they won just six games the rest of the season.
As gloomy as things may seem for Washington, no team in the East other than the 76ers is winning consistently. No Eastern Conference team has won more than two straight other than surging Philadelphia, leaving room for plenty of jostling, even after this road trip.
Said Jordan: "You never know how the other teams are doing. You don't know if someone else may get hurt. You don't know what's in store. All we can do is worry about us. If we sit here and try to calculate what everybody else is doing we're going to forget what we're doing. We have to focus on us and let the chips fall where they may."