Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Could Wizards Turn Tough Breaks Into Inspiring Run?

It looks bad for the Wizards, I know, but part of me feels like the injuries were what they needed to start playing like a team (and I know Jshuane Melton, Wizards beat writer at DC Sports Box, agrees).

Maybe it didn't need to be quite as bad as what they got, but in the last two-plus weeks, the Wizards have rallied around each other and started playing good team ball.

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The results haven't shown up in the standings, but they've played admirably despite the absence of their all-stars.

The only blowout loss the Wizards took with both Arenas and Butler out was Sunday against Chicago.

Other than that, the Wiz fell to Charlotte by eight (in the game Arenas was injured in), Cleveland by five, New Jersey by six (in overtime) and then four, Miami by three and Orlando by six.

They're losses, but they're solid efforts and they're enough to give the most ridiculous of optimists (me) some hope.

There was so much optimism before April 1. Then things started going wrong.

The Wizards won that night in Milwaukee to get to 39-33 but all-star Caron Butler fractures his hand and is done for the regular season. The Wiz get embarrassed in their next game, April at Charlotte. Trying to regroup without Butler, the Wizards lose to Charlotte again on April 4 at Verizon Center, but Gilbert Arenas' torn knee ligament is more of a crushing blow than the final score.

The Wizards have lost eight of nine going into tonight's regular season finale, and only a win against lottery-bound Indiana will get them to the break-even point.

Tonight's results will decide where the Wizards will be seeded going into the playoffs and who they will face in round one:

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A loss tonight coupled with an Orlando win over Miami would drop the Wizards to the eighth and final playoff spot and pit them against Detroit in the first round.

However, if the Wizards win tonight and the Nets lose to the Bulls, the Wizards get sixth place and would face Toronto, the Atlantic Division champs.

If all stays as is, the Wizards would take on the second seed Bulls, and we all saw how that went on Sunday.

Unfortunately, Arenas' only shot at a return is if the Wiz make the finals. Butler's situation is slightly better -- he targets a possible second-round return -- but the team has to get there first.

As easy as it is to say, "They suck, they've lost their all-stars, they'll play the minimum," I'm not quite ready to write them off.

After Arenas went down, Jamison stepped up huge in the first four games. He recorded double-doubles in each and averaged almost 29 points. Then he stumbled for the next three games, averaging under eight points per game. Wearing down from trying to carry the team, perhaps? I would have thought, but then he broke out for 48 points on the Magic last night.

Jarvis Hayes has also stepped up, getting into double digits in scoring in all but one of the past eight games, including 29 at New Jersey and 20 at Atlanta.

Is there realistic hope that the Wiz can pull off a shocking upset over either Chicago or Detroit? Probably not. Jamison would have to score 40 every night and Hayes would have to shoot approximately 100 percent from the field.

But Toronto's a different story. They get a third seed by default for winning the Atlantic Divison, which is probably the worst division in the NBA this year.

I take that back. There's no probably about it.

I like the Wizards chances against Toronto. Not that I'd put money on it, but out of the three available opponents that's the one that that the Wiz could most likely beat. (And I know Juan Dixon wants to face Washington, but I'm not particularly offended. Who wouldn't? If Shaq and Dwyane Wade were both hurt everyone would want to face Miami.)

If they go into the playoffs playing the kind of team basketball they've been playing lately, the Wiz might just make it out of the first round. Then if Butler really does return, who knows what could happen?

At the very least, here's rooting for a great story.

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