The Washington Wizards would appear to have every reason to feel confident entering tonight's home opener against Shaquille O'Neal and the Miami Heat. The Wizards are 2-0 for the first time in 10 years, with one of those victories coming at Memphis, a Western Conference playoff team last season -- and the Wizards went the entire 2003-04 season without beating a playoff team from the West on the road.
Now the bad news: The last time Washington's basketball team started 2-0 was 1994, when the then-Bullets went on to finish 21-61. And if the Wizards are going to make it 3-0 against O'Neal, the most imposing center in the league, they're going to do it without the services of three of their top front-court players.
So while Coach Eddie Jordan has been encouraged by the efforts of his team to start the season, he isn't worried about his players being overconfident. "After last year? Winning 25 games?" Jordan said Friday. "Who's going to have their heads up in the clouds? I just hope not."
With O'Neal and the Heat (2-0) coming to town, the Wizards had better not. A hamstring injury has kept O'Neal from making a dominant entrance into the Eastern Conference. He has bent the rim with a few dunks and gotten the best of an all-star center (Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas) and a fading former all-star center (Alonzo Mourning), but he is averaging just 16.5 points in 26.5 minutes for the Heat.
"He's still being a difference-maker but he hasn't had that 100 percent healthiness that he has had in the past," Wizards forward Antawn Jamison said.
Dwyane Wade has led the Heat in scoring after the first two games, averaging 24.5 points, but O'Neal making an offensive impression is more a matter of when not if. The Wizards hope it isn't tonight or Tuesday, when the two teams meet again in Miami.
With Brendan Haywood missing his final game because of a three-game suspension for fighting, and Kwame Brown and Etan Thomas both on the injured list, the Wizards will again use 6-foot-8 Michael Ruffin at center.
Ruffin has played well in the absence of Haywood, averaging eight rebounds and 4.5 blocks, but he has started against Stromile Swift and Primoz Brezec, respectively, the past two games. Swift and Brezec don't come close to the challenge of guarding the 7-2 O'Neal.
"All the centers are a couple calibers below me," said O'Neal, who won three NBA titles during an eight-year tenure with the Los Angeles Lakers before being dealt to Miami this offseason. "It doesn't matter what conference they're in."
Wizards reserve Samaki Walker played two seasons with O'Neal in Los Angeles, winning a championship in 2002 but enduring a physical beating each day in practice. "The big fella pretty much had his way," Walker said, adding that there is no way to truly prepare to guard O'Neal.
"I'm going to lift before the game to see if that'll help at all," Walker said with a laugh. "He says he lost some weight, but I still put him at 350. Nobody can stop him one-on-one. Some nights, two guys can't stop him. As much as our egos may tell us, it's not going to happen at all."
Ruffin, who went to the dentist after practice yesterday, knows he might come out of tonight's game with more than just a toothache if he tries to get too physical with O'Neal. "It's going to be a tough game, obviously," Ruffin said. "He's going to get some dunks, he's going to get some looks. What I've got to do is make it as difficult as I can."
Jordan had not devised his game plan to defend O'Neal as of Friday afternoon, but he knew what he wasn't going to do. "I can't see saying, 'We're going to let him get 40, and we're going to defend everybody else.' It just doesn't work out that way," he said. "In my mind, there are ways to defend without allowing him to get his points."
If the Wizards can find a way to beat the Heat, they'll be 3-0 for the first time since 1978, before eight players on the roster were born.
"It's early, but this is a good game for us, [against] possibly one of the top three teams in the East," Walker said. "As a team, we have the players to compete. We don't have Shaquille O'Neal, but have some guys who can put the ball in the basket."