Wizards facing pitfalls on Jordan farewell tour

Two West trips will test team as it looks to avoid repeat of 2002 collapse

Pro Basketball

February 11, 2003|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

The Michael Jordan "Love Across America" tour officially commenced with the gaudy halftime celebration at Sunday's NBA All-Star Game. The question now is whether the love for Jordan will wash over the Washington Wizards as they emerge from the All-Star break.

As Jordan winds down his 15th and announced final season, he is bound to face some level of tribute at just about every NBA city he and the Wizards visit between now and the end of the regular season in mid-April.

For his sake, but more importantly for the health of Washington's up-and-down playoff chances, Jordan has to hope that he and his team will be able to balance the adulation with the task of winning.

"Hopefully, it doesn't get like this everywhere I go," Jordan said after the All-Star Game in which he hit a basket with one second left in the first overtime that seemed like a game-winner for the East, which went on to lose in double overtime.

"Obviously, everybody knows there are very few places where I'm going to go and, hopefully, it will be my last time there, but not with the fanfare [of Sunday]. I have a lot of memories of a lot of places, but I just want to go there, play the game, try to make the playoffs, keep beating teams that we can beat. Teams we haven't beat, we want to beat them, too. Just try to keep moving on, get this thing over and done with."

The challenge of defeating teams that the Wizards (24-25) haven't beaten begins tonight in Sacramento, where the Kings have won the past four times over Washington. In fact, the Kings have won seven of the past nine times against the Wizards, with last year's 108-101 loss at MCI Center a notable exception.

That game, the last before the All-Star break, moved the Wizards to 26-21, capped a five-game winning streak and appeared to give Washington momentum for a playoff push.

Instead, the Wizards lost nine of their first 10 after the break, including a 109-93 spanking in Sacramento. During that period, Jordan bumped knees with forward Etan Thomas and was never right the rest of the season, going on the injured list late in February for three weeks.

By the time he returned, the losses had mounted too high for the Wizards to overcome, as Washington went 11-24 after the break and finished out of the playoffs.

The Wizards emerge from this break with a significant injury question as well. Leading scorer Jerry Stackhouse has missed the past two games and six of the past 12 with a left groin pull.

Washington won four of the six games it played without Stackhouse, but if he is out for a significant period, his absence likely would force more of a reliance on Jordan. And with his 40th birthday coming Monday, that could be problematic.

"We need to have Jerry and Michael healthy and playing well," said Washington coach Doug Collins. "Then, what we've been able to do on a particular night is find a group of guys who are playing well and find a way to win some games. We definitely need our two guys healthy and playing well."

Collins said last night that Stackhouse had done some light work in practice yesterday but would not play tonight in Sacramento. Collins said Stackhouse is questionable for tomorrow's game in Los Angeles against the Clippers and that the target date for his return is Friday at Utah.

Collins said that though he is eager to have Stackouse back, the team would not rush his return, feeling that he perhaps rushed to return last month.

The Wizards start the post-break portion of the schedule in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, which would get them a playoff spot if the season ended today. But their lead over ninth-place Orlando is only a half game. While most of the rest of their playoff competition has taken at least one West Coast trip, the Wizards are embarking this week on their first excursion west of the Rockies.

In addition, the Wizards have one more long Western trip in late March, which should make a definitive statement about their chances to make the postseason for the first time in six years.

"This is very similar to our schedule last year," Collins said. "The big difference from last year is that we built ourselves a little bit of a cushion at the break. Had Michael not gotten hurt, we would have made the playoffs. I really believe that, even though we had a tough schedule.

"We went on the West Coast and we won some games, and we're going to have to do that again this year, and all of those teams are very much improved."

Wizards tonight

Opponent: Sacramento Kings

Site: Arco Arena, Sacramento, Calif.

Time: 10

TV/Radio: CN8, Ch. 50/WTEM (980 AM)

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