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Underdog Wizards not about to roll over

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If the Washington Wizards were in uncharted territory going into the opening round of the 2005 NBA playoffs against the equally inexperienced Chicago Bulls, their venture into the Eastern Conference semifinals might be tantamount to basketball's Bermuda Triangle.

A blip on the radar screen disappearing quickly, never to be heard from again.

At least that's what most figure to happen when the Wizards begin their second-round series against the heavily favored Miami Heat this afternoon at AmericanAirlines Arena. The Heat, which swept the Wizards in the four games they played this season, are well-rested after sweeping the New Jersey Nets in the opening round.

With All-Stars Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade, and an experienced cast surrounding them that now includes former All-Star Alonzo Mourning coming off the bench, the Heat will be a different kind of challenge for the Wizards. Some believe it's an insurmountable challenge.

"It's going to be tough," guard Gilbert Arenas said after the Wizards closed out the Bulls in Game 6 on Friday night, with a crazy, come-from-behind 94-91 win at MCI Center in Washington. "They have the Diesel [O'Neal] and Flash [Wade], and all their guys play a role. We're going to have to fight for our lives."

The Wizards have gained plenty of hands-on experience doing just that the past few days. After nearly blowing a 22-point lead in Game 5 before beating the Bulls on a buzzer shot by Arenas in Chicago on Wednesday night, Washington seemed destined for a Game 7 at the United Center.

That's when the Bulls self-destructed down the stretch, with Washington taking the lead with 31.9 seconds to go when Chicago guard Kirk Hinrich's inbounds pass hit rookie guard Chris Duhon in the back. Wizards forward Jared Jeffries turned the miscue into a dunk for a 93-91 lead, and Juan Dixon added one of two free throws.

Washington ended the game on a 7-0 run to make it to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 23 years.

"A lot of people never expected us to even be in the playoffs and now we're in the second round -- just one of eight teams left," Arenas said. "It's such a great feeling because we came in here believing in each other from the very beginning of the season."

Arenas overcame a horrible 6-for-24 shooting night to make the defensive play of the game, the series and maybe the playoffs when he came from behind to block what looked like an uncontested layup by Hinrich that would have put Chicago ahead by six points with a little more than 2 1/2 minutes left.

Though the game followed a different script from most of the previous five, with the Wizards getting off to a slow start and the Bulls playing the scrappy style that made them one of the top defensive teams in the league this season, the ending typified the kind of resilient team Washington has been.

"Even though we have talent, talent comes in different forms," said second-year coach Eddie Jordan. "Talent comes in skill level. Talent comes in the way you go about your job. Talent comes in sacrificing yourself for your teammates. Talent means growing and getting the best out of your skill level, and we have had as much heart and guts as anybody or any team in the NBA.

"I am glad we have proved that, whether we won the series or not. We have it, we have had it, and I said before that half our wins have come on character, toughness and just will and determination."

But will all that mean anything against the best team in the East all season?

Just as the Los Angeles Lakers did when O'Neal played there with Kobe Bryant, the Heat might have two of the top five players in the league in O'Neal and Wade. O'Neal dropped more than 40 pounds and stayed healthy until a late-season thigh bruise limited his play against the Nets. Wade has emerged as the best young guard in the league.

In Miami's four victories over the Wizards this season -- a pair of back-to-back games in early November and mid-December -- Wade was the more dominant of the two. Shortly after Arenas made a disparaging remark about the second-year guard, Wade dropped in 37 points with 12 assists in their first meeting.

Wade was hampered by an injury and held scoreless in the most one-sided of the wins -- a 106-83 victory in Miami on Dec. 13 -- but O'Neal more than made up for it with a 40-point, 12-rebound, five-block night. O'Neal had 20 points, 10 rebounds (and nine turnovers) in another of the games.

"A lot has changed since then," said Wizards guard Larry Hughes, who'll likely be matched up against Wade. "Our [big players] are so aggressive now and they're feeling good. We are going to need them against that big guy down there."

As the celebration in the locker room continued Friday night, Jordan noticed that predictions of a four-game Miami sweep were already being made by the ESPN prognosticators.

"For the last two weeks or so, it seems like the entire NBA is talking about how we played, how much tougher the opponent was, how much guts they had and how they were undertalented," Jordan said. "I believe that our guys deserve the same credit, and the same respect."

Wizards today

Matchup: Washington Wizards vs. Miami Heat

What: Game 1, Eastern Conference semifinals

Where: AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami

Time: 3:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WTEM (980 AM)

Line: Heat by 10

Outlook: The Wizards lost four straight to the Heat this season, but the teams haven't played since mid-December. Washington must concern itself as much with second-year guard Dwyane Wade as with Shaquille O'Neal, as well as with their supporting cast, in particular three-point specialist Damon Jones. The Wizards will need their "Big Three" of Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison to shoot better than they did against the Chicago Bulls, particularly in the series-clinching Game 6 on Friday night, when they combined for a dismal 22-for-62 from the field. O'Neal's bruised thigh limited his minutes against the New Jersey Nets in an opening-round sweep and could be the equalizer if he's not at full strength against the Wizards. Washington needs to win at least one of the first two for this to be a competitive series. - Don Markus

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