Ball Don't Lie - NBA

"It is designed to break your heart."

A. Bartlett Giamatti said that once, about baseball, and it kind of stuck.

And, without cheapening the late baseball commissioner's intentions or prose or frustrations in the face of another dreary New England fall, it's the phrase that immediately sprung to mind when I saw the injured Antawn Jamison and DeShawn Stevenson being tended to on the sidelines, as the Wizards lost a game on Wednesday night.

At home.

To the Bucks.

With Gilbert Arenas back.

With, in case you forgot, Jamison and Stevenson writhing in pain on the bench.

With Antonio Daniels wearing a wrap that renders his left hand more or less useless.

With Caron Butler, brilliant in so many ways, still playing just his 54th game in 75 tries.

With Etan Thomas still on the shelf after undergoing open heart surgery. Open heart surgery: that noted scourge of backup centers. 

For 47 minutes and just over 59 seconds, the Wizards were as close to full strength as they've been in months, holding a solid-if-not-safe lead over the Bucks while thinking of a last-ditch run at home court advantage while a LeBron-less Cavs team was locked in a close one with the Charlotte freakin' Bobcats a few channels away.

Butler, Arenas, Jamison, spare parts - in the East, that's formidable. In the East, that's a seven game series. In the East, that's a good chance to take down the Pistons, should they continue their current two-year streak of moping their way through the last postseason round they play in.

And, in seconds, any hope was squelched. Well, maybe not completely, but it couldn't have been fun to behold for Wizards fans.

You see, for years, the team endured two significant playoff droughts, in a league where over half the teams make the postseason. When seemingly every other city got to move on, some with black sneakers or shaved heads and a nifty little "NBA Playoffs" logo affixed to the court below, the Bullets and Wizards stayed behind.

They did get to move on during one season, 1996-97, and participated in a righteous three-game series with the eventual champs from Chicago that closed out the US Air Arena, the Bullets nickname, and Robin Ficker's chance at courtside seats. The future was bright, C-Webb was on the left block, and the My Giant treatment seemed passable on the first read.

Washington wouldn't sniff the playoffs for eight more years. Once it did, a string of appearances commenced, but the team never had enough to get over the top. Last season's run was a joke - with Butler and Arenas out with injury, the Wizards may have had the least amount of talent on paper to ever grace a postseason stage.

And, for most of this season, the Wiz endured what must have felt like another cruel joke. With Arenas on the shelf and Butler on and off the court, the team managed to keep winning. They kept winning even though more than five seconds thought about this team's playoff chances ended with the realization that Washington wouldn't be able to do anything in spring with either of the two on the bench.

Then, on Wednesday, Arenas suits up. Then he nails his first three shots. Then that five seconds thought turns into a game-long internal back-and-forth about what the Wiz might be able to do in a month's time.

After all, the Cavs can't be trusted. The Raptors couldn't put away the Hawks on Wednesday. The Hawks are the Hawks. The Celtics are the Celtics, but they're also the Celtics that the Wizards have beaten twice this season. Shooting coach Dave Hopla might be the league MVP (Roger Mason Jr. and Stevenson hitting treys? Come on!) that nobody talks about it. It might be. It could be.

It isn't.

At least, I don't think it can be. The Wizards have been proving me wrong all year, but Antawn Jamison appears to have a separated shoulder, and Stevenson sustained a sprained ankle that could linger for weeks should he try to play through it and keep his iron man streak alive.

Suddenly, the Wizards are a game above .500 with seven to play, Detroit's the likely first round pairing, with Arenas on a minutes watch, Jamison possibly out for weeks, Stevenson gimpy, Butler being barely held together, and Antonio Daniels unable to offer up anything but "paper" in a Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament.

It's gotta break your heart. And, somehow, this team feels like it was designed to.  

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