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Breaking out of Terps' shell


WASHINGTON - After a Washington Wizards practice last week, Steve Blake stepped to a spot where a group of television, radio and newspaper reporters could interview him about his transition from Maryland floor leader to NBA rookie.

As he stepped in front of the cameras, Blake was wearing a white jacket trimmed in sky blue, the colors of North Carolina, one of the Terps' hated rivals.

After reporters apprised him of the grief he would endure if he were seen in public wearing Carolina blue, Blake took off the jacket to reveal a shirt with black and red, colors more palatable to Maryland fans.

"I wasn't thinking," Blake said with a sheepish smile.

The moment reflected the dilemma that practically every young person trying to make the jump to the grown-up world faces: How can you be an adult when Aunt Edith keeps showing your baby pictures to your friends?

In the case of Blake and teammate Juan Dixon, how can they prove they belong in the NBA when everyone keeps asking about what it's like to be teamed professionally after three years together in college?

"We get that question asked every day, especially after a game if we play well," said Dixon, in his second season with the Wizards. "Steve and I know each other well, and I've been telling you guys the whole year that he could play. Hopefully, we can continue to play well together and we can bring that winning attitude to the locker room.

"We're not doing so well right now as a team, but we played well in our last [few] games, so hopefully we can keep it up."

In the past two weeks, Blake and Dixon have gone a long way toward removing the novelty of their landing on the same NBA team after being in the same college backcourt, not to mention proving that they individually have a place in the pros.

"I haven't seen any other duo in the history of the league that played on the same college team and played on the same NBA team and was as effective," Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. "Certainly, it's a unique thing, but they are legitimate NBA players, and I'm glad we have them.

"They play well for me. They make shots, and I trust them on the floor. I like their defense and their chemistry. Sometimes, there might be a little partnership there and it might be a little too much, but it hasn't been a problem."

For Dixon, the issue hasn't been so much demonstrating that he belongs, but showing his new coach that he should be in the regular guard rotation.

Jordan, in his first season in Washington, has had some questions about Dixon's defensive style, which is high-risk, high-reward, as he consistently goes for the steal.

"The crucial part is Juan at [shooting guard]. That's always going to be a matchup situation that as coaches we have to look at," Jordan said. "Is he getting the best of this matchup? Is he defending the right way? Is he denying and getting steals without gambling too much? Is he making shots, or is that big guard posting him up and putting us in a bad way? That's always the nurturing of that matchup. We have to always analyze it."

Steely perspective

In Dixon's mind, he's only continuing a defensive strategy that made him second on Maryland's all-time steals list and helped get him to the NBA as the 17th overall pick in the 2002 draft.

"That's what I've been doing the whole four years at Maryland [using defense to spur his offense]," Dixon said. "I play extremely hard on the defensive end. I gamble a lot. I have a lot of confidence that I can get steals off of playing help defense. That's my game. So I'm going to continue to work hard on the defensive end, gamble at times, and just help my teammates."

Dixon recalled a recent game against Indiana when the Pacers ran an inbounds play from under the basket. Dixon chased Reggie Miller coming off a screen, leaving his man open for an easy score.

"I gamble too much all the time," Dixon said. "I gamble all the time, and the coaches know. I just hope that I can get the ones that I gamble and if I don't, hopefully my teammates can help me out."

If Dixon is making Jordan pull his hair out defensively, the coach has embraced the 6-foot-3 guard's ability to score. Heading into tonight's game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Dixon, who is averaging 9.2 points overall, has averaged 15.1 points in his past nine games, including a career-high 30 in a loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 26.

Off on the right foot

Blake, a second-round choice for Washington in last June's draft, who was thought to be too slow and too inconsistent with his shot to stick in the NBA, has been a favorite of Jordan's from the first day of training camp and has done nothing to get out of his coach's good graces.

"Stevie Blake is one of the few bright spots of our season," Jordan said after Sunday's loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. "He keeps the energy up both ways. He's a pure point guard. He's becoming more consistent and a lot more confident. He's playing the right way."

Blake, who has started 11 of 43 games, has made the most of his opportunities, which have increased with the abdominal strain injury to Gilbert Arenas. The 6-3 guard had a career-high 18 points in the Wizards' upset of Indiana on Jan. 24.

Blake is shooting 36 percent but, as he did at Maryland, has shown a penchant for hitting big three-pointers, as he did in Washington's most recent win, a comeback, 105-100 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Friday.

Blake, who is shooting 36 percent from three-point range and 86 percent from the free-throw line - 15th best in the league - hit two threes in the final five minutes, as the Wizards erased a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit.

"I think I've come a long way," Blake said. "I'm feeling comfortable. I know what shots I can make. I'm getting a little bit more aggressive. I'm starting to understand what Coach wants and how to play the game a little bit more."

The future and the vagaries of the NBA may someday separate Dixon and Blake, perhaps as early as the league trading deadline later this month or the June expansion draft to stock the roster of the Charlotte Bobcats, who open play next season.

Or they could grow old together, in an NBA sense, playing in the same backcourt for years and years.

"I don't think it [playing together] gets old," Blake said. "I think I've shown that I don't have to have him to be a good player. But I like playing with him a lot. I don't get upset about that because we are friends and we love playing together. You don't get tired of things like that."

Blake's numbers

19.7 Minutes per game

3.2 Assists per game

5.9 Points per game

Dixon's numbers

18.5 Minutes per game

1.9 Assists per game

9.2 Points per game

Wizards tonight

Opponent: Memphis Grizzlies

Site: MCI Center, Washington

Time: 7

TV/Radio: CN8/WTNT (570 AM)

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