Wizards decline to pack it in

Playoff chances slim, but they vow a fight

April 05, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

MILWAUKEE -- The schedule and circumstances may suggest that the Washington Wizards are precariously close to that point in a long regular season at which tee times become more important than game time.

But, even on the precipice of the playoff race, the Wizards are moving on as if there is meaningful basketball to be played, which is just the way Michael Jordan, who will miss their final seven games, would want it.

"Obviously, we're still working toward the future of this franchise, and we need to instill in everybody, `Hey, don't quit because Michael's missing and it looks like we're not going to make the playoffs,' " forward Popeye Jones said yesterday.

"I think we can go ahead and say that the odds are not with us, but don't stop working. We've worked too hard this year and have come too far to give up now. When you start a race, you want to run that race to the finish line, regardless of whether you win or lose. That's what we're trying to do."

Even after a 105-90 drubbing in Milwaukee Tuesday at the hands of the Bucks -- a third straight loss, a fifth setback in their last seven games and the 20th loss in 28 contests since the All-Star break -- the Wizards carried on at practice yesterday minus any signs of the kind of gloom that might be expected to envelop a team that is just barely in the playoff race and without its best player.

"I told the guys today the easy thing to do is take the day off, get on a plane and fly to Charlotte [the site of tonight's game]," said Washington coach Doug Collins. "We've got a game [tonight] and a game Saturday, and it's four games in five days.

"As a coach, I owe it to them to get them in the gym, to work hard. We're going to approach every game, regardless of whether we're in the playoff picture or not, as a game we want to win."

The good mood, however, is just a temporary cover for the uncertainty left by the departure of Jordan before Wednesday's game. Jordan, who took a flight to Milwaukee with the team Tuesday night, announced he would miss the rest of the season to rest his surgically repaired right knee, which became inflamed after the loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Jordan's departure left the Wizards (34-41) with a pair of questions, short- and long-term.

The short-term question is whether Washington can make a last-ditch run for the playoffs.

Neither Indiana (36-37 going into Thursday's game with Atlanta) nor Toronto (36-38), the teams directly ahead of the Wizards, reminds anyone of the Lakers. But Washington only has seven games to pass them and will likely have to win at least six to catch them, assuming it has help, since it has only one game -- a home encounter with Indiana a week from Sunday -- left against either.

To do so, Washington will have to play better defense. The Wizards have given up more than 100 points in each of their last three games.

The long-term question is whether Jordan will return next season.

He has said recently that he intends to play next year but attached a proviso: his health, meaning his knees, has to allow for it. Collins, who told an ESPN interview show last week that he would be shocked if Jordan came back next year, said he has not thought about or discussed Jordan's role, if he does return.

"We don't know how he's going to heal," said Collins. "We don't know how his knee is going to respond. Obviously, if he were to be able to play, we'd have to sit down and come up with a game plan, but that's so far down the road."

The consensus among the players is that Jordan, who would turn 40 around the All-Star break next year, will return, if for no other reason than to erase the memory of what would be the final game of his career, scoring a career-low two points in a career-low 12 minutes against Phil Jackson, who teamed with Jordan to win six NBA titles when they were in Chicago.

"I think he really enjoyed playing this year," said Jones, who has missed the last two games with back spasms. "You could see it, that he was enjoying being on the basketball court, playing in the NBA and in that environment.

"It probably gives you a little more thrill than just going to the `Y' every day and playing pickup ball. I'm not a betting man, but if he's feeling good, he committed to playing two years. I'm hoping that he'll come back and that I can get re-signed, because I've had a blast playing with him myself."

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