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Jordan's wizardry

He has found a way to win again, leading the way by doing less, inspiring Washington to do more.

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 20, 2001

[AP photo]
Toronto Raptors' Vince Carter backs off as Washington Wizards' Michael Jordan soars in for a basket on Sunday.
ORLANDO -- Next stop for the Michael Jordan comeback tour: Orlando's soldout TD Waterhouse Centre on Friday night.

If only the Magic could sell its courtside seats.

Washington started the season 2-9 and lost eight straight, tarnishing the NBA legend's comeback. "I think we stink," Jordan said after a 94-75 loss to Cleveland on Nov. 27.

It didn't take long for the Wizards' commander-in-chief to rally the troops. Washington has been one of the league's hottest teams, winning 10 of 13 and putting together a seven-game winning steak.

The Magic, on the other hand, had lost five of six entering Wednesday's game against Utah. The biggest loss of all: Grant Hill had season-ending surgery on his left ankle for the third time in 20 months. To add to Orlando's woes, Tracy McGrady's oft-injured lower back will keep him out at least three games. So, not exactly the best time for a key Atlantic Division clash ... especially not against the resurgent Jordanaires.

"I think (Jordan) changed during the season," Orlando point guard Darrell Armstrong said of Washington's sudden rise. "He understood he can't just do it all, and now he's got all the other guys involved and they're playing great basketball right now, and that's because of Jordan."

Indeed, and as usual Jordan is playing pretty well himself.

The 38-year-old five-time league MVP, six-time NBA champion and 10-time NBA scoring leader is ranked 11th in the league with a team-high 23.5 points per game. He also is third on the team with 6.5 rebounds and leads the squad averaging 5.3 assists and 1.73 steals.

Jordan still can dunk, but no longer is he the explosive highlight machine he was before his first retirement in 1993. When he came back in 1994, Jordan was not just a superb athlete, but a complete player, a dangerous jump-shooter who paid fanatical attention to defense.

After his second retirement and rise to the Wizards corporate boardroom, Jordan's second comeback has seen him accept the new mantle of playmaker, orchestrating the offense and defense as he sets up shots for his young charges and hands out a daily dose of on-the-floor mentoring.

"He's changed," Orlando coach Doc Rivers said. "Because he's probably not as athletic as he was, but he's still as smart, maybe smarter than he was when he left the last time, because he's more mature."

His latest comeback has not been easy. On Dec. 4 Jordan sat out his first game since March 5, 1993, with tendinitis in his right knee.

But the team has learned to do more with less Jordan. He takes fewer shots, plays fewer minutes and makes more passes. Everyone has a better grasp of the offense, though it took an early season benching to get Richard Hamilton's attention. He responded with 20.3 points per game.

Defensively, the team also is playing up to Jordan's standards. The return of 7-foot rookie Brendan Haywood from injury means more production and presence inside.

"I just think that the guys are starting to accept their roles and we feel very dedicated going out and putting that on the basketball court," Jordan told the Washington Post. "The effort and determination, the education that (coach Doug Collins) has been trying to pass on to these players; I think they are starting to comprehend.

"Believe me, we are starting to play collectively together, and I think that has made a big difference in our success. They haven't stood around watching me."

Jordan's comeback has played out under the intense glare of the media, one that will grow brighter as Washington continues to win. His comeback has been criticized by some -- former teammate Scottie Pippen, for one -- and admired by others who can't imagine life without the NBA.

"You love the camaraderie of the players, you being in the locker room, being around the guys in the plane and going out into practice and into battle," Armstrong said. "You love all the things basketball can bring, and when it's over, I know there are a lot of guys just missing that action.

"I know I'll be."

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which used information from Times wires.

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