Wizards go slow in transition game

Jordan: The Wizards open tonight with renewed hope, but a 2-6 preseason shows their acclimation to Michael Jordan needs work.

October 30, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - As successful as his comeback has been so far with the Washington Wizards, Michael Jordan has proved himself rather human in one regard: his inability to lift his new team to new heights. As extraordinary as Jordan looked during the preseason, the Wizards still looked very ordinary.

Or worse.

When Jordan's return to the court becomes official tonight against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the Wizards will be trying to put a disappointing 2-6 exhibition record behind them. They will need more than the memories of what Jordan has done against this team in this city to carry them.

But Jordan, who at 38 is returning to the NBA after a three-year absence, has helped rekindle some of those memories in the past month.

Many here will be thinking about the 55-point masterpiece Jordan put on the Knicks in 1995, shortly after coming back from his last retirement.

Asked yesterday after practice in Washington if he expected to repeat that kind of magic tonight, Jordan said: "You can expect whatever. Me personally, I'm just trying to get a win and play the game of basketball. Whatever happens, happens.

"I'm just going to go in there and try to get myself off to a good start, and the team is trying to do the same," added Jordan, who flew up here ahead of teammates to ring the final bell yesterday at the New York Stock Exchange. "I'm not going in there with any preconceived ideas, just to play hard. ... Hopefully, we'll go out there and play with continuity and chemistry and play as a team."

The Wizards have shown only flashes of doing that in a hectic preseason that finished with four games over five days last week, three of them losses. The adjustment to Jordan, as well as to new coach Doug Collins, has not gone as smoothly as either of them had hoped.

The results have left Collins questioning the toughness of his team, and put a number of veteran players, in particular power forward Christian Laettner, on notice that a better effort will be needed for the Wizards to turn around their near decade of losing.

"I get a sense that Christian was sort of coasting through the preseason," Collins said after practice Sunday. "Today, he was a different player, much more alert, much more alive. As a 10-year veteran, you do what you have to do to get through the preseason. I expect him to be much, much better come Tuesday."

Said Laettner: "I'm not the only one struggling out there. I think there's a few of us struggling. It's more of a team thing. Once we get it off our back and things start clicking, our spirit will rise and so will our energy and our intensity. We're just not playing the right way. We're not playing defense."

Tonight starts a difficult opening stretch for the Wizards, who play four of their first five regular- season games on the road. Considering that this team has been a habitually horrendous starter, Collins views the first two weeks as crucial to the kind of season the Wizards could have.

"We've got a tough schedule, and that's why we've got to be ready," Collins said. "You don't want to dig yourselves a hole. I don't want the players to get down from a bad start. All of a sudden, it's, `Has their hard work meant anything?' I think it's important for us to get off to a great start."

Much will hinge on the way Collins uses Jordan. He points to the manner in which Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan uses John Stockton, who at 39 is only one of two players in the league older than Jordan. (Houston's Kevin Willis, also 39 , is the other. Utah's Karl Malone is five months younger than Jordan.)

So figure to see Jordan play the first eight minutes of the opening quarter tonight, take a rest until the four-minute mark of the second quarter and then repeat the process in the second half. And figure on seeing Jordan playing alongside Richard Hamilton and Courtney Alexander in a three-guard lineup.

Hamilton, the team's leading scorer last season, and Alexander, who led the team in scoring the final month of last season after coming over in a trade from Dallas, figure prominently in Jordan's comeback. The more they contribute, the less will be riding on Jordan's sculpted shoulders.

"I knew that was going to be a role of mine, even if MJ didn't come back," said Hamilton, who has been the most consistent Wizards player aside from Jordan in the preseason. "It's something I'm ready for, and I can't wait to get started. He's going to get a lot of attention, a lot of double teams. That's going to leave me and a lot of other teammates a lot of open shots."

Alexander, who struggled for much of the preseason until scoring 20 and 16 points in his last two games, is no longer the first or second option in the offense. "We haven't gotten all our plays in," Alexander said. "It's too early to assume anything."

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