Celts Keep Jordanless Wizards in a Rut

March 11, 2002

Pretty soon, if things don't change, the postgame routine for Wizards coach Doug Collins is going to be the following: Ibid.

Then, he can walk back into the locker room and wonder how he is ever going to keep his slip-sliding team in the playoff race with a brutal schedule stretch ahead and no Michael Jordan on the horizon.

   Yesterday's 98-91 loss to the Celtics was Washington's third straight and fifth in seven games since Jordan underwent right knee surgery Feb. 27. As much as Collins hoped otherwise, the game went according to a frustrating script he can't change or edit. His team plays hard. His team plays tough. His team stays in the game. His team folds like a house of cards over the final few minutes.

That's Life Without Michael. Jordan's absence still dictated a sellout because the tickets were sold long ago. Unfortunately, his absence also pointed to Collins's No. 1 concern these days: He doesn't have anyone who can take over a close game, command a double-team, get a call from the referees, or make a winning hoop. That was Michael's world, which, apparently, was inhabited only by Michael.

"This was a carbon copy of our last two losses," Collins said, referring to late-game setbacks to the Magic and Pistons. "Under pressure, we take bad shots and make bad decisions. We couldn't manufacture any offense. The simplest play in basketball is to throw it into the post and see what happens. That's what they did."

That's what the Wizards normally do when Jordan is around. Not only can he draw a double-team, he usually will read it correctly and make the right decision. Plus, he's Jordan. He's going to get calls. Collins talked about how his team doesn't get nearly as much respect (read: calls) now that Jordan is hors de combat. "In this league," Collins said, "you have to have star players at the end of the game."

Washington has some decent players and perhaps a star-in-the-making in former University of Connecticut go-to guy Richard Hamilton. He was good enough to make some big plays and key shots in the 1999 Final Four. But neither he nor anyone else has stepped up in Jordan's absence in an Alexander Haig-like manner. ("I'm in charge now."   "For 50 games, we had him there," Christian Laettner said, referring to Jordan. "He took some big shots and he made them. We have to figure out how to get over this hump. It's tough. [Jordan] is the consummate, end-of-game shooter."

Added Popeye Jones, "[Jordan] is kind of like a blanket. But without him, we've got to find a way."

The Wizards need someone because they are perilously close to falling out of the playoff picture, even though everyone else seems to lose along with them. They trailed by only 3 points with 3:23 to play and you could sense Collins was wondering how his team was going to butcher this one.

The Celtics stepped up the defense and held Washington to a single point the rest of the way, a Laettner free throw. In between were missed opportunities (three missed shots) and a big turnover. The Celtics closed out the game from the free throw line, going the final 3:37 without a hoop. To make matters more painful, the Wizards had a 44-32 rebounding advantage, but lost two huge rebounds to Vitaly Potapenko in the final 90 seconds with the margin at 3 points.

It wasn't that long ago - the All-Star break, to be specific - that the Wizards were arguably the feel-good story of the league. They were 26-21, only a game behind the Celtics. Jordan was being mentioned for a possible sixth MVP award for his work in turning around a 19-win team. Collins had been the Coach of the Month in December, a month in which the Wizards went 11-4 and had a nine-game winning streak.

That's ancient history now. After tonight's rematch against the Celtics in Washington, the Wizards have to go out West for six games, which include two back-to-backs. Although said to be ahead of schedule, Jordan is not expected back until after the trip. Once home, Washington has to face the Lakers and Mavericks and has two games with Milwaukee.

By then, Jordan might be ready. By then, it might be too late. As good as Jordan is, he can't win games when he's not there, a point that is being driven home, painfully, and with increasing and frustrating regularity.

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