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Jan. 31, 2005

Superstar-less Wizards win with hustle and coaching

by Michael Bushnell, Page Editor
When Larry Hughes, the NBA leader in steals and a top-15 scorer, went down with a broken thumb until the All-Star Break, Washington went in to a panic. Just 12 hours earlier, the Wizards had pulled off their best win of the year, but now worry set in, and rightfully so. How the team would play without one of their main sparks this year was a big unknown, and most fans, including myself, didn't want to know.

But, as they've shown all year, these are not your father's Wizards. Actually, scratch that, they are, and that's more than any fan could have expected this year. They're playing as well as the Bullets of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when they won the Eastern Conference twice and won the 1978 NBA Finals.

The Wizards have staked themselves to a 26-16 record - their best 42-game record in 25 years - thanks to great offense, smart point guards and a great coach. The Wizards are a perfect example of the explosion of retro basketball this year; they're scoring 102 points per game, and are 14-0 when they hold their opponent under 100 points. Teams now know that they have to shoot the lights out to beat Washington.

When Hughes got hurt, the Wizards got shellacked the next game at San Antonio. And even though they lost the next night at Dallas, they scored 120 points. Then they won the next four games, including back-to-back wins at Indiana and at Cleveland; the Cavalier win coming after Washington trailed 25-8 in the first quarter.

Even with Hughes out, the team has still been able to play their same up-tempo style, thanks to the emergence of clutch bench players. Anthony Peeler had 14 points in the fourth quarter of the Cleveland win, and Juan Dixon scored 26 to beat the Raptors last Friday.

But nobody has carried this team more than Gilbert Arenas, who unequivocally must be an All-Star this year. Arenas is averaging 24 points per game, and since the Hughes injury, has five games of 30 points or better. And perhaps best of all, with all the recent news of player fights hurting various teams in the NBA (Latrell Sprewell, Darius Miles, Jim Jackson), all these players seemingly get along great.

I've believed that you can tell a lot about a team's chemistry by their bench's reaction. When the Wizards score, half the bench at least leaps off their feet, and everybody applauses. Nobody is over there griping to Eddie Jordan about playing time, or sending a ball boy to get a woman in Section 114's phone number (yes, this happens). They're all focused on the team, and over an 82 game season, chemistry is keenly important.

Eddie Jordan's done an amazing job of coaching this team, starting with his formation of a great assistant staff. Mike O'Koren is a smart man who can pick apart holes in defenses, and did a serviceable job filling in for Jordan when he was in the hospital back in November for two games.

When GM Ernie Grunfeld got Antawn Jamison from Dallas for injured, whiny Jerry Stackhouse and overpaid, whiny Christian Laettner and the #5 pick in last years draft (Devin Harris), the concern was that Arenas, Jamison and Hughes couldn't work together, and rightfully so. When they were all together four years earlier Oakland, the Warriors went 21-61.

But Jordan has done an incredible job of getting every player to hustle and give their all on every play, every night. Some of the veterans riding the bench this year (Peeler, Samaki Walker) could have griped about playing time, or demanded a trade. But they've all taken their reduced roles in stride, and when their time to shine comes up, they all have performed.

The coaching staff is getting this team to use their skill and speed to their advantage. Peeler and Arenas can shoot three pointers, so Jordan doesn't hesitate to let them take the shots.

Jordan knows what it's like to coach a great point guard; he was the assistant for the two recent NBA Finals appearances by the New Jersey Nets. In the Summer of 2003, when Kidd called out then-coach Byron Scott, he said what many in North Jersey had thought for a while; that Jordan, who had just taken the Wizards job weeks earlier, was the real architect of the Nets open offense that gave them so much success.

The Wizards were slept on by everyone this year, including me. I figured they could sneak in to the playoffs if everything came together. But every single person in the organization has stepped up this year. Even the nacho cheese at MCI Center tastes less like paste.

We'll see what type of playoff run the Wizards have in them when they play 15 of their next 22 games on the road starting February 12 at Detroit.

But hey, for the first time in, well, my whole life, I can talk about the Wizards playoff future and be serious. With a team like this, I've not needed to watch another winter sport. With a team in Washington this fun to watch, it's time for me to sadly ask, gulp…

Who needs hockey?

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  • Nick Falgout (View Email) on January 31, 2005 at 2:05 PM
  • Varun Gulati on January 31, 2005 at 7:46 PM
    Yeah, go Wizards! And yet, I disagree - Hughes is not the only star; we still have Dixon!!
  • whyyy on February 5, 2005 at 2:17 PM
    why are the wizards sucking?
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