A Ghost of a Chance

With Two All-Stars Out for Play­offs, Wiz­ards’ Hopes Ap­pear Greatly Di­min­ished

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sports - By Michael Lee

When Caron But­ler broke his hand and Gil­bert Are­nas buck­led to the floor with a knee in­jury early this month, the Wash­ing­ton Wiz­ards stum­bled into a co­nun­drum few teams in pro­fes­sional sports have ever had to face: They were forced to shut down and re­boot with most of the sea­son al­ready com­plete.

Nearly ev­ery­thing that worked dur­ing the first five months of the sea­son — and pro­duced enough vic­to­ries that the Wiz­ards could not slip out of play­off con­tention — had to be tossed aside.

NBA teams have lost key play­ers be­fore the post­sea­son or dur­ing the play­offs, but a team los­ing two of its best ap­pears to be un­prece­dented. “I can’t re­mem­ber two all­stars go­ing down this late in the sea­son,” TNT an­a­lyst and five-time NBA cham­pion Steve Kerr said.

In 1989, the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers swept each play­off op­po­nent in the first three rounds, then lost the league’s most valu­able player, Magic John­son, and By­ron Scott to ham­string in­juries and were swept in the NBA Fi­nals against Detroit.

The New York Knicks lost fran­chise cen­ter and lead­ing scorer Pa­trick Ewing to an Achilles’ in­jury dur­ing the 1999 East­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nals against In­di­ana. The Knicks, how­ever, ral­lied to de­feat the Pac­ers in six games be­fore los­ing to San An­to­nio in five games in the NBA Fi­nals.

And two years ago, the Chicago Bulls lost lead­ing scorer Eddy Curry to an ir­reg­u­lar heart­beat and fourth-lead­ing scorer Luol Deng to a wrist surgery in April. The Bulls still fin­ished the reg­u­lar sea­son strongly, won home-court ad­van­tage in a first-round se­ries against the Wiz­ards, and took the first two games be­fore los­ing in six.

Asked to com­pare the sit­u­a­tions last week, Bulls Gen­eral Man­ager John Pax­son said: “We were not re­plac­ing two all-stars, es­pe­cially one who was a top five scorer in the league like Gil­bert. We had to win that whole year play­ing as a group re­gard­less of

who was on the floor,” Pax­son said. “I think that phi­los­o­phy served us well be­cause we were not re­liant on that one player to bail us out in crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tions.”

“It’s hard,” Wiz­ards Coach Ed­die Jor­dan said. “It’s hard for us to wean our­selves from Gil. It’s hard for us to wean our­selves from Caron. It’s al­most a new way of play­ing for us.”

Pos­si­bly the only ad­van­tage the Wiz­ards have go­ing for them is that they have three more games (in­clud­ing to­day’s con­test against the Bulls) to es­tab­lish a new iden­tity be­fore head­ing into the play­offs. Jor­dan is still fig­ur­ing out the lim­i­ta­tions of the Wiz­ards’ cur­rent in­car­na­tion. Dur­ing their re­cent sixgame los­ing streak, the Wiz­ards played sev­eral close games. The process of find­ing a go-to guy in the clos­ing sec­onds has been ex­cru­ci­at­ing — and has yet to be re­solved.

“Some­times I didn’t know what to ex­pect from Gil. [But] you sort of had the feel­ing he was al­ways go­ing to come with it,” Jor­dan said with a laugh. “What I ex­pect [now] is a team that is go­ing to try to ex­e­cute ex­actly what we want to do.”

Mi­ami Heat Coach Pat Ri­ley, who coached that 1989 Lak­ers team, said the chal­lenge of mo­ti­vat- ing a team in such a dire sit­u­a­tion is dif­fi­cult. “I know for them it’s dev­as­tat­ing be­cause it was two of their best young play­ers,” he told re­porters last week in Mi­ami. “You just say, ‘Who’s next?’ and you do the best you can and you don’t get down on your­self and you hope some­body steps up at the end of the day.”

That isn’t al­ways enough, for­mer Lak­ers for­ward A.C. Green said last week. “It’s like go­ing into a fight when you were in mid­dle school against the neigh­bor­hood bully with­out your big brother be­hind you. . . . It has a great ef­fect on you when your guys go down. Your first in­stinct is to step up, to rise up. Your com­pet­i­tive juice is the first thing that trig­gers when you’re at the level that you’re at in terms of be­ing a pro­fes­sional. But the hu­man na­ture side is, ‘Man, how are we go­ing to do this now?’ It’s to­tally de­flat­ing.”

Los­ing Ewing and chang­ing play­ing styles ac­tu­ally worked in the Knicks’ fa­vor dur­ing the 1999 con­fer­ence fi­nals be­cause they ex­ploited the Pac­ers’ start­ing lineup of 30some­things with the speed and ath­leti­cism of La­trell Sprewell and Mar­cus Camby and the out­side shoot­ing of Al­lan Hous­ton. “In some ways [the Knicks] were more dif­fi­cult for us to guard be­cause when they played smaller they put us in a tougher po­si­tion de­fen­sively — and that’s not to take any­thing away from Ewing be­cause he’s a great player. Their quick­ness was an is­sue for us,” said Pac­ers Coach Rick Carlisle, who was an as­sis­tant un­der Larry Bird that sea­son. “I wouldn’t say we took them lightly in ’99, but they got on a ter­rific run and it was one of those spe­cial times for their team.”

That spe­cial time ended, though, when the Knicks faced Tim Dun­can and David Robin­son in the Fi­nals. “Ob­vi­ously, [Dun­can and Robin­son] had a big ad­van­tage not hav­ing to go against New York’s best cen­ter,” said Kerr, then a re­serve guard for the Spurs. “It’s not some­thing that you rely on, but you def­i­nitely jump on the op­por­tu­nity. There is not a lot of sym­pa­thy in­volved here.”

Kerr added that the play­off prospects of any NBA team los­ing two all-stars this late in the sea­son are dread­ful but not hope­less. “More than any­thing, the team has to say: ‘Let’s go have some fun. Let’s play. Let’s see what hap­pens,’ ” Kerr said. “You never know. But in some ways the pres­sure is off. They need to use that to their ad­van­tage. Throw cau­tion to the wind and let it fly. All the pres­sure is on the op­po­si­tion.”

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