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Wizards deserve praise for pulling off series win

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Washington Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said he and his players were not dwelling on history. At least not recent history. Missing the playoffs for seven straight years before now? Not an issue. Getting dogged on national television by Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith, though, that's another story.

"It seemed like the entire NBA has been talking about how we played, how much tougher the opponent was, how much more guts they had," Jordan began his post-game news conference last night, the first comments spoken by a victorious Washington coach after a playoff series since Gene Shue did it with the Bullets in 1982.

The moment allowed Jordan to reflect -- and his reflection turned into an eloquent (if edgy) reply to naysayers who had counted the Wizards out of their first-round series against Chicago after two ugly games.

We're not soft and selfish, like some people have said, went the answer to, basically, the TNT studio crew, who were only echoing what much of NBA-watching America was saying. Give our team credit for our heart and our guts, he said, and not a soul could deny him that.

Only eight previous teams had come back from an 0-2 hole in a best-of-seven series to win; this team did it with four straight wins, and the last two came when they survived a furious final-minute rally at the United Center, and when they fashioned a similar rally in the final minutes at MCI Center.

Yet Jordan's point -- one he had made before the game and reinforced afterward -- was even more relevant. You might recognize the faces from those initial two losses, but this was far from the same team.

"We were the team that improved, we were the team that made adjustments," the coach said. "We played harder, we played better, as the series went along. We established and willed our personality on the series from the start, although we went 0-2."

That team that fell into the 0-2 hole could not have finished a game the way the Wizards did last night. Gilbert Arenas was horrible from the field in Game 1 and gave very little anywhere else that night. Arenas was a bricklayer again last night, yet this time he turned in the defensive play of the decade for the Wizards, catching Kirk Hinrich from behind after a steal, defying gravity and blocking a layup that would have given the Bulls a six-point lead with 2:41 to go.

The Bulls never scored again. The Wizards scored the final seven points, none more dramatically than the two Jared Jeffries generated by gathering Hinrich's inbounds pass off Chris Duhon's back with the score tied with 35 seconds left.

A blocked shot and a steal turned a devastating defeat into a franchise-defining victory. Could anyone have predicted that about this team, this team that stood gawking at the shots sailing over them in the first two games in Chicago and in the near-fatal collapse in Game 5?

These Wizards went six and a half hideous minutes in the third and fourth quarters without a basket, something that would have seemed impossible in the regular season but painfully typical during their worst moments in this series -- yet they kept the Bulls in sight with, again, defense of the manner they haven't played all year. It was almost unrecognizable for the team that played in the regular season. This is Version 2.0 of that team.

They learned. From the criticism, from their own play, from their coaching staff. "We got a rude awakening," Antawn Jamison said of the effects of the first two games. "We relied on defense, relied on ball movement, became more of a team." The way they finished this game -- and this series -- "shows people we can play defense when we have to stop people," he said.

"We just started trusting each other," chimed in Larry Hughes -- and that aspect of their game was a pleasant departure from the first two games, essentially a contest to see who could shoot first, fastest and furthest off the mark between him and Arenas. Not to mention who would get the last good look at the wide-open shot by a Bulls player.

In the next four, Arenas noted, "someone different has won every game." Etan Thomas in Game 3, Juan Dixon Game 4, Arenas himself on his instant-classic buzzer-beater in Game 5. And yesterday's Game 6? Take your pick, although if you split the trophy between Jeffries and Michael Ruffin, you wouldn't get an argument.

Or, how about Jordan himself? He adamantly refused credit. He deserved a ton of it, though. This was uncharted territory for him as a head coach as well as for the bulk of his roster. Yet last night, in danger of failing in what everyone says is the toughest thing to do in a playoff series -- close it out -- they got it right the very first time, under circumstances as trying as anyone could imagine.

So forgive these Wizards if they're a little sensitive. And forgive them if they'd rather not hear about history. They're the teachers this time. Give them a listen.

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