Jordan of yore yet to show

Whether it's layoff, legs or confidence, he's not his old self

Pro Basketball

November 14, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - When the rumors surfaced last spring that Michael Jordan was contemplating another NBA comeback, the reports that emerged from his private workouts in Chicago seemed to suggest that, though he couldn't play above the rim anymore, his shooting touch was better than ever.

Seven games into his first season with the Washington Wizards, Jordan is starting to look his age, 38. As a result, the Wizards are starting to resemble the team that won just 19 games last season. The white flags aren't being raised yet at MCI Center, but some red ones have emerged.

Is Jordan's recent shooting slump, which included Sunday's 5-for-26 performance that started with 14 straight misses, a sign his game is going to take a while to return or a signal his comeback wasn't such a good idea in the first place?

Jordan has been a dominant player at times - the first quarter of Washington's victory at Atlanta two weeks ago and part of the fourth quarter in a loss in Boston last week are the most obvious examples - yet there have been longer stretches when he has merely looked like just another good player.

Or even a faint shadow of the player who ruled over the league for most of his 13 seasons with the Bulls.

Tonight, Jordan and the Wizards (2-5) could get their stiffest test of the season in a 7 o'clock game against the Milwaukee Bucks (4-1). Jordan will likely be matched up against Ray Allen, considered one of the best shooting guards in the NBA, as the Wizards face one of the league's premier teams.

In trying to break a four-game losing streak, the Wizards might be well-served not to have Jordan do everything from leading the team in points (24.1) and assists (4.6) to steals (2.1) and rebounds (6.9), as well as playing the most minutes (36.4).

"We talked about that, I said, `Michael, we've got to get it to the point where, especially to start games, you don't feel you have to score the first eight or 10 points ... to get us off running,' " Wizards coach Doug Collins said yesterday after practice. "Obviously, there are nights when that happens.

"This team depends so much on Michael's confidence and what he brings, that when they see him struggling a little bit offensively, it takes a little bit out of them.

"We've got to get to the point where we lift him up, where guys can help him on days when his shot is not going in. We haven't been able to do that."

Jordan has spent much of the season trying to figure out what has turned him from a 50.8 percent career shooter into someone who has missed 38 his past 56 attempts and 105 of 172 overall, including all nine of the three-point shots he has tried.

Every time Jordan thinks he has found his rhythm, he loses it amid rushed jumpers, missed layups and even a botched alley-oop or two.

That he has had a number of his shots blocked, including 20-footers, suggests heeither doesn't have the lift in his legs or the tendinitis in his left knee is acting up, as it did in training camp and again during the first week of the season.

Jordan, who declined to comment after practice yesterday, said last week that he is struggling to find the answer.

"I don't know. My touch is really escaping me," he said after shooting 13-for-30 in Friday's 109-100 loss to the Golden State Warriors. "The rhythm on my shot isn't there. I've just got to find a better rhythm over the course of a 48-minute game, 40 minutes a game, whatever I play."

If it's surprising for everyone else to see, can you imagine how shocking it must be for Jordan to miss shots that used to seem nearly automatic?

"I'm missing a lot of easy shots, wide-open shots, shots I normally would make," he said. "I'm trying to take my shots in the rhythm of the offense, whenever I feel it's a good shot or one the team expects me to shoot. A lot of times, I've had those shots and I've missed. That's frustrating."

At least one person familiar with Jordan's game said the answer is in his legs.

"He doesn't have his legs," Billy McKinney, once the assistant general manager of the Bulls and now a television analyst for the Seattle SuperSonics, said after Seattle's 99-84 victory Sunday over the Wizards. "It's going take awhile for him to get them back."

If he doesn't, the Wizards are in big trouble. Except for Richard Hamilton, Washington has no other consistent scorer.

Power forward Christian Laettner hit 13 of 17 shots in scoring a season-high 29 points while playing center against Boston, but has taken only seven in the past two games, making four and scoring nine points. After a fast start, point guard Chris Whitney has been slowed by injuries, including a sprained ankle Sunday.

Opposing teams started the season by throwing an extra defender Jordan's way, and Jordan compensated by hitting Hamilton, Whitney or Laettner for open shots. But now teams have started playing off Jordan, daring him to shoot and tightening their defenses on the other Wizards.

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