Wizards happy that foes feel their pain

3rd place despite injuries, grateful team faces Spurs

January 15, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Doug Collins can't help but look at the Washington Wizards' balance sheet and be extremely grateful.

After all, rare is the person who could have forecast that the Wizards, even with as luminous a presence as Michael Jordan in their lineup, would be playing this well nearly halfway through the regular season, especially with all the injuries that have beset the team.

Three key members of their rotation - starters Richard Hamilton and Christian Laettner and reserve guard Courtney Alexander - have missed significant time, yet the Wizards, heading into tonight's MCI Center meeting with the San Antonio Spurs, are in third place in the Atlantic Division, three games behind second-place Boston.

And that makes Collins quite thankful.

"Right now, I'm thrilled we've been able to win as many games as we have with these injuries," Collins said. "We could really have dug ourselves a huge hole."

And the Wizards can operate with some sense of hope that Laettner, who was placed on the injured list Dec. 14 with a broken bone in his left leg, and Hamilton, who has been out since Christmas Eve with a pulled right groin muscle, will be back soon to help.

And they could use it. In the absence of Hamilton at guard and Laettner at forward, Collins has been forced to start and give extended minutes to Hubert Davis and Popeye Jones. Alexander, who would be getting some of Hamilton's minutes, was placed on the injured list Saturday with a left ankle sprain, a recurrence of an injury that placed him on the list Dec. 11.

While both Davis and Jones have played admirably and even starred from time to time, Collins wants to get them back to the bench to keep intact the rotation he planned in preseason.

And with two straight losses to Milwaukee and Minnesota over the weekend and a five-games-in-eight-days stretch on the way, beginning with tonight's game, any assistance will be appreciated.

"I've worn Pop and Hubert out during this stretch, but with Courtney's injury, it's really hurt us," Collins said yesterday. "I don't have another guard to put in the game. Hubert's tired, and he should be. He's playing 35, 37, 38 minutes a night and he's chasing those 2-guards.

"I need him [Davis] back with that second unit, so he can come off the bench with T-Lue [Tyronn Lue] and he and Popeye and Brendan [Haywood at center], so we can have some semblance of a second unit."

For his part, Jones, who is averaging 10.4 points in his past five games, is ready to cede his starting slot back to Laettner.

"That's a role that I enjoy doing," he said of providing a lift off the bench. "When there are injuries, sometimes you have to start, but I've been in this league long enough where when the starter comes back, he should go back in there, and I should go back to my usual role."

What's unclear is when that will happen. Laettner practiced lightly with the team yesterday, and has an outside chance of being activated in time to play tonight or tomorrow at New Jersey. More likely, Collins said, Laettner will play Saturday in Chicago.

Hamilton's return is more of a mystery, however. Hamilton said he rode a stationary bike and jumped rope yesterday during practice, but is still limited in his ability to move laterally. Collins said he has no real sense of when Hamilton could be ready to play.

NOTE: The top-ranked Connecticut women's team visited the Wizards at the end of practice, and the unbeaten Huskies posed for pictures with Jordan. Connecticut will play Georgetown tonight at McDonough Arena.

Wizards tonight

Opponent: San Antonio Spurs

Site: MCI Center, Washington

Time: 7

TV/Radio: CSN, TBS/WTEM (980 AM)

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