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How The Southeast Was Lost

In with Utah. Out with Utah. Seems like the perfect bookends for the Washington Wizards' 69-day run in sole possession of first place in the Southeast Division.

The rise and fall of the Wizards can be summed up in the defining images from those games: Gilbert Arenas spinning and lifting his arms to the ceiling after nailing that game-winning, buzzer-beating three-pointer on Jan. 15; and Arenas looking up at the ceiling after Jazz forward Carlos Boozer plowed through him and knocked him on his back after a vicious, left-handed jam last night.

It's over now. But it really shouldn't be.

No matter how the Wizards' season ends -- and whether or not they win the division - they will look at the past 32 games and realize that they absolutely blew several opportunities to have had the division wrapped up long before it was lost. Injuries to Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler have been costly -- but the Heat caught them without the services of Dwyane Wade and lesser, but important, talents like Jason Kapono.

Is it too late to apologize to Shaquille O'Neal? My bad, Big Fella. I've been dissing you all season, but I had no idea that you could still do this. I had no idea you had this much left in the tank, that you would benefit from teams refusing to double-team you, that Antoine Walker, Gary Payton and James Posey would discover their games with you providing so many open looks. It really says something that Wade played his best basketball and the Heat couldn't do better than .500. Shaq played his best basketball (at his advanced age, mind you) surrounded by the same pieces and the Heat goes 12-4. Unreal. The Heat's run is truly a testament to O'Neal and Pat Riley's pride. They refuse to be embarrassed.

The Wizards really blew it, but it still has a chance to finish with the division title. Five of the Heat's final 12 games are against teams with winning records, while the Wizards only have four games against teams with winning records. Washington also has seven home games. The edge for the Heat, though, could be Wade's pending return next month. Plus, the Wizards don't look like they can shake out of the doldrums.

Is it just me, or does it seem like Gilbert has lost some of his edge since being voted onto the all-star team? He doesn't seem to carry the same chip on his shoulder. Somebody needs to make him angry again. Maybe he should take a page from Kobe Bryant and start getting suspended for throwing elbows or something.

The Wizards are just 16-16 since The Hibachi was seriously on fire and dropped 51 on Utah. I thought it was important to point out the "harvest the nuts" games that the Wizards squandered; the games that they will be kicking themselves for sometime in April when they possibly look up at their first round matchup against the dreaded Heat. I came up with five, but feel free to add your own.

Feb. 11 - Portland
Gilbert came 41 points shy of his 50-point pledge, but the Wizards shouldn't lose by 21 at home against any team, especially one that isn't named Phoenix, Dallas or San Antonio.

Feb. 27 - New Jersey
The Wizards have struggled at Continental Airlines Arena and they didn't have Caron or Antawn, but it was ridiculous to watch Jason Kidd turn into Reggie Miller and hit six 3s.

March 7 - Atlanta
The Hawks were missing three starters and the Wizards had a 10-point second-half lead. How in the name of Zaza Pachulia does this happen?

March 10 - New York
There have only been two Steve Francis sightings this season.

March 20 - Portland
Portland has played improved basketball of late without Zach Randolph, but seriously? It was the first game of the five-game trip and could've set the tone. Unfortunately, it did.

Just think: If the Wizards go 21-11 instead of 16-16, they have 42 wins, a 4 ½ game lead over Miami, a half-game lead over Cleveland for the second seed in the Eastern Conference (as in, no Miami in the first round!) and trail Detroit by just 2 ½ games for the best record in the conference. I know I'm speaking about a huge hypothetical situation, but isn't that what these blogs are for?

By Michael Lee  |  March 27, 2007; 1:49 PM ET
 
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