WASHINGTON (AP) -If the NBA were run like the NCAA, the Washington Wizards wouldn't be in the bracket.
The selection committee certainly would have turned thumbs down to a team that finished on a 2-8 slide, a team that is relying on role players because both its All-Stars are injured, a team that can't even make its free throws anymore.
As it is, the Wizards will enter the NBA postseason as one of the weakest playoff teams the league has seen. Forget the overwhelming odds against winning the first-round series against Cleveland - Washington will get major kudos if it simply avoids a sweep.
``We're being written off by everybody,'' guard Antonio Daniels said Thursday. ``And when I say everybody, I almost mean everybody outside of the guys in that locker room and some of the fans. When you get written off so much, that obviously has to motivate you.''
The Wizards had legit goals of a 50-win season and a spot in the Eastern Conference finals when they were tearing up the conference in December and January. They also boasted of having the best ``Big Three'' in the league. Gilbert Arenas' scoring output was matched only by his flamboyance. Caron Butler's toughness and defense made him the team's backbone. Antawn Jamison was Mr. Twenty-and-Eight (as in points and rebounds) and provided veteran locker room leadership. At their peak, the trio accounted for more than 60 percent of the offense.
In hindsight, the Big Three were too big. Whenever Arenas, Butler or Jamison got hurt, the Wizards no longer had the talent to win. Washington went 33-21 this season with the Big Three intact, and 8-20 when at least one of them was missing.
Project that over an 82-game season, and one could argue that the Wizards who will face Cleveland in Game 1 on Sunday are, at best, a 23-59 team. Needless to say, no one will confuse them with the 1996 Chicago Bulls.
Actually, the situation right now is even bleaker, because two are missing instead of one. Butler broke a bone in his hand trying to block a shot April 1, and Arenas tore the meniscus in his knee when a player fell on his leg April 4.
Since Butler's injury, the Wizards' only two victories have come against non-playoff teams Atlanta and Indiana, who were playing out the string. They barely beat the Pacers on Wednesday in the final regular season game to secure the East's No. 7 seed - a far cry from the midwinter days when they seemed a good bet for a top three.
Coach Eddie Jordan has spent this month reconstructing his Princeton-style offense, which his players didn't have to run as efficiently when Arenas and Butler were around. Now there's little margin for error.
``We're trying to develop our chemistry within the system - not just random basketball,'' Jordan said. ``We trusted Gil and Caron and what they did and it was good for us, but now we want to trust what we can do with the people that we have.''
On the day Arenas had his surgery, Jordan said the injury could be a ``shining moment'' for the other players, but they haven't taken advantage of the spotlight.
Daniels, DeShawn Stevenson and Jarvis Hayes look better-suited for the roles they had all along - as supplemental role players to the Big Three. Second-year forward Andray Blatche is too raw to be reliable. Centers Etan Thomas and Brendan Haywood are inconsistent. Too much is being asked of Jamison, whose 48-point effort wasn't enough to beat Orlando earlier this week. And who in the world is going to guard LeBron James?
``We have to play as hard and as well as we can to at least be a player in this thing,'' Jordan said.
Even the simple things are suddenly hard. The Wizards have missed 21 free throws in their last two games.
Washington is the only playoff team in the East with a losing record over their final 10 games. At a time when other teams have momentum, the Wizards' best rallying cries are a mix of ``let's prove everyone wrong'' and ``wait'll next year.''
``This situation has never occurred before, but it's only making us tougher,'' Jamison said. ``It'll put us in a better situation next year, but the thing about it is that we've got some more games to play. We're going to be tough - no matter who's out there on the court.''

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