Wizards Can Make A Deep Playoff Run
The East is there for the taking. I've been trying to hold back on this assessment for fear of looking absolutely foolish, but can you name the Eastern Conference teams that the Washington Wizards really need to dread? Maybe Detroit. Possibly Chicago. Those teams play defense, which the Wizards don't and won't, and perhaps have the inside track to the NBA Finals.
But after seeing Gilbert Arenas cocksurely spin and walk off the court before his 32-foot bomb splashed through the nets last night -- and, really, what was the harm in that? Either you make it and look like Larry Legend, or you grab a towel and a seat on the bench and get ready for overtime -- I'm really starting to take Eddie Jordan's preseason chatter to heart: This team could really be in the Eastern Conference Finals.
I sort of chuckled inside at the time, believing that the Miami Heat was a mortal lock to claim the Leastern Conference and, that either Detroit or Cleveland would be there with them in the conference finals. But during the first two months of the season, I've come to realize that with the emergence of Arenas as a legitimate franchise player, Caron Butler as an all-star caliber performer and Antawn Jamison as the best third wheel this side of Shawn Marion, the Wizards can seriously get out of the second round this season - barring a serious injury to any one of those three.
After a bumpy November, the Wizards are back on track and in first place in the Southeast Division, a position they should be able to hold onto for the rest of the regular season. Orlando is sliding, Miami is struggling to be a playoff team and . . .well, do we even need to mention Atlanta and Charlotte (who have a combined 18 wins, the same as Washington)?
Admittedly, the Wizards lack of defense and limited depth make me a little cautious about thrusting them beyond the conference finals, but Steve Nash-led teams in Dallas and Phoenix have proven that teams with high-powered offenses and non-existent defenses can make deep postseason runs, in the West, no less. (And, let's get this straight: The NBA champion is coming out of the West. Unless there is another blockbuster trade - with either Ron Artest or Kevin Garnett switching sides of the Mississippi - the best the East has to offer would barely qualify out West and has no chance in the Finals). But, with Etan Thomas and Michael Ruffin set to come back soon, and Darius Songaila possibly returning in late February, the Wizards should be deep enough to be taken seriously on this coast.
If the season ended today, the Wizards would get the Orlando Magic in the first round, and then possibly face Cleveland or Indiana in the second round. Now, this isn't the way the season will end, of course - I know, we have 51 games left! - but does that make you shiver? Didn't think so.
In case you were wondering, the defending champion Heat is on the outside looking in of the playoff picture, 2 Â½ games behind the Milwaukee Bucks. They begin a problematic West Coast trip on the horizon on Friday in Phoenix without Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade, James Posey, Antoine Walker and Pat Riley. Miami is in serious trouble, as evidenced by Riley's decision to take an immediate leave to have hip surgery at a time when the championship hangover for his team has carried over from June to beyond New Year's Day.
Wade has been stellar, but dragging, with the weight of carrying the squad by himself becoming too much to bare. Everyone is under the assumption that when Wade and Shaq come back, all will be well on South Beach. I'd agree if I thought Shaq was coming back. He's not. Shaquille O'Neal is coming back, not the player so dominant that he was referred to only by nicknames, such as Shaq, Diesel or The Big Aristole. Unfortunately, O'Neal is just another good basketball player right now. I really hate to see him in decline. I'm a huge fan and I'd love to see O'Neal return to terrorize the NBA with nasty dunks, but how much lift will he really have on those balky legs? It's difficult for me to imagine O'Neal coming back to provide much more than 17 points and 7 rebounds - at best - the rest of the season. That's not bad for anybody other than O'Neal - half the centers in the NBA would make a Faustian wager to get those numbers - but not what we've grown accustomed to expecting fromsomeone who was the most fearsome force the first four, five years of this decade. Maybe Riley can focus on shaking up this squad in his time away from the bench. . .and if Miami can get Artest from Sacramento, then, well, I take it all back. Otherwise, all that I'm asking is: Who in the East is really standing in the Wizards' way?
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