Playoff lag, not jet lag, has Wizards out of sorts

2-4 Western trip erases lead on Bucks for 8th spot

Pro Basketball

April 01, 2003|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

DENVER - Getting into the playoffs for the first time since the 1996-97 season was never supposed to be easy for the Washington Wizards, but the expectation was that they would do little to harm their own chances.

But, in keeping with their seasonlong habit of defying expectations, the Wizards did mostly self-inflicted damage to their postseason hopes Sunday with a 16-point loss to the lowly Denver Nuggets, and now head home from a six-game Western trip in a world of hurt.

"Now, we're on the outside looking in," said guard Jerry Stackhouse. "We expect that this will put more pressure on us, and even if we had won this game, we would have only have been on top by a half game, so we'll still have to find a way on nights when we're fatigued to find energy."

The Wizards (34-39) finished the Western trip 2-4, losing the first two at Phoenix and Golden State, winning the middle two at Portland and Seattle, but losing the last two to the Lakers and to the Nuggets.

In the process, their half-game lead over the Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final Eastern playoff spot vanished. And, the Bucks' 91-86 win over the Heat last night gave them a game lead on Washington.

With Milwaukee holding the tiebreaker by virtue of winning the season series over Washington, the Wizards must finish a game or better ahead of the Bucks.

And their schedule looks remarkably more difficult than that of the Bucks, who have just two of their last seven games on the road, against the Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors. Two of their home games are against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers, teams that occupy the basement of the Central and Pacific divisions, respectively.

The Wizards, meanwhile, are at home tomorrow against the Pacific Division-leading Sacramento Kings, then play at Atlanta, Boston and Cleveland.

"They [the Bucks] have an easier schedule than we do," said the Wizards' Michael Jordan. "I think we can get it done. I think we can go in and take care of Sacramento. We need to go home and get some rest and get back on it."

The loss in Denver, which has the second-worst record in the league, was just the latest defeat to a lesser team: three to Toronto, and one each to Miami, Memphis and Chicago.

The Wizards, who led by 13 in the first half, hit just seven field goals in the second half against Denver - only one from 6 feet or farther.

"This was the pivotal game of the road trip," said Stackhouse. "We felt if we could win this game, we would reach our goal of winning three or four games on this trip. We won two. We're not where we wanted to be."

And getting there has become a whole lot more difficult.

"We have nine games left, and we're going to have to win seven of them. There's no room for error now," said Wizards coach Doug Collins. "It's not going to get any easier, but our guys are going to try."

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