The last time Washington played New York at Madison Square Garden, the Wizards were putting the finishing touches on their breakthrough 2004-05 regular season, and the end result hardly mattered.
Having already locked up the fifth seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Wizards had nothing to play for when they lost, 113-105, in the season finale April 20 against a Knicks squad that was limping to a 33-49 finish.
Tonight, the Wizards and Knicks will meet again, and both teams will be sporting new looks. The Wizards got off to a solid if unspectacular start with a hard-earned 99-96 win at Toronto on Wednesday night, while the Knicks and new coach Larry Brown fell, 114-100, in overtime at Boston.
The Wizards lost both games at Madison Square Garden last season and haven't won there since Jan. 11, 2003.
The Knicks have added shooting guard Quentin Richardson, power forward Antonio Davis and centers Eddy Curry and Jerome James to a mix that already included talented guards Stephon Marbury and Jamal Crawford.
The Knicks figure to be one of the Eastern Conference teams, along with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks, who could be fighting for a playoff spot after missing the postseason last season.
"They are going to emphasize defense," Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said. "I think Larry is running pretty much the same things he ran in Detroit, so I have an idea of his sets. They have Marbury as a starter and Crawford coming off the bench with Richardson starting at guard. And I think Larry likes his second unit, so our 10 guys are going to have to match their 10 guys."
From the smell of the popcorn to the old-school organ to the crescendo of noise that feels as though it is pouring down from the rafters, the Garden is brimming with mystique.
And the Wizards are fully expecting to walk into an electric atmosphere as the Knicks make their home debut and Brown, a Brooklyn native, coaches his first regular season game at the Garden as New York's leader.
"We have a veteran team," Jordan said. "If I was coaching a young team, I'd be a little more worried about it. When you look at NBA veterans, they love to go into New York for a number of reasons but mostly to play in the Garden. It's going to be exciting."
Jordan, who starred at Rutgers, said he's even going to break out a special outfit tonight.
"I'm going to wear a Phil Chenier suit," Jordan said, referring to the always dapper former Bullet turned Wizards color commentator.
Wizards guard Chucky Atkins, who played for Brown in Detroit during the 2003-04 season, said he fully expects to see the Knicks come out fired up. The key for the Wizards will be matching that intensity while doing a better job on the defensive end.
Toronto hurt the Wizards with dribble penetration, particularly during the second quarter when rookie point guard Jose Calderon repeatedly got into the lane, and on the offensive glass.
Toronto outrebounded Washington, 48-44, and the Raptors almost overcame a 39.8 percent shooting night because they picked up 18 second-chance points.
"You know that Marbury is going to be at the center of everything they do and Larry is going to use him like he used [Allen] Iverson," Atkins said. "He wants to break you down with the dribble and get to the basket. So the key for us will be containing the basketball. They won't shoot a lot of shots and they'll take good shots. So when they miss, we have to rebound and come right back at them."
Jordan said defense, particularly pick-and-roll defense, was the emphasis of yesterday's practice and today's shoot-around. While the coach labeled his team's defense during the first six minutes of Wednesday's game as "atrocious," he was happy with the way his players dug in and made stops down the stretch.
After tinkering with different lineups throughout the preseason, Jordan indicated that he will stick with Wednesday's starting unit of Gilbert Arenas, Antonio Daniels, Jared Jeffries, Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood.
However, who plays down the stretch will be determined by which lineup is working.
"We're going to keep the unit out there that's going to win the game, that's going to play the right way," Jordan said. "The preseason is one thing, but winning time started [Wednesday] night."