Air missing in Jordan’s comeback

NEW YORK����He’s thicker through the torso than you remember, his chest and arms expanded by advancing age and weight work.

The first step is slower and less explosive, a drop-off that could be magnified this winter by the proliferation of zone defenses in the NBA.

His legendary jumping ability, which launched millions of posters and hours of highlight clips, has diminished.

At age 38, Michael Jordan is not, and never will be, the same athlete he was when he left the game after leading Chicago to its sixth NBA championship in the summer of 1998.

He’s not transcendent anymore, but he’s still pretty darn good. In his highly anticipated return performance for the Washington Wizards Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, Jordan battled sporadic shooting (7 for 21) and persistent double-teams from New York defenders.

At times, he looked rusty. At times, he looked like the best player on the floor.

After draining a 14-foot jumper on a curl play to bring his team to within one point of the Knicks with 1 minute 38 seconds left in a tense fourth quarter, Jordan turned the ball over with 34 seconds left, his second errant pass of the final 3 minutes.

The Wizards, one of the younger teams in the league, kept the game close and gave Jordan a chance to dethrone Elvis Presley and claim the greatest comeback of all time.

It didn’t happen.

With 17 seconds left, Jordan rimmed what would have been a tying three-pointer and the Knicks, led by Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston, iced their 93-91 victory.

“It could have been a great situation,” Jordan said of his final shot. “I had a good look. I think it was pretty rushed.”

In 37 minutes, most at point guard, Jordan scored a team-high 19 points, dished out six assists and had four steals and five rebounds. The “old” MJ might have willed his team to a victory. Of course, the “old” MJ had Scottie Pippen and a strong supporting cast and the “old” MJ didn’t have to compete against his own legend. In the three years since Jordan left the game, nobody has seen him miss a shot.

The highlights show him sinking winning jumpers, not shanking open three-pointers and making turnovers. Jordan was not always perfect during his first two incarnations as the best player on the planet, but time has a way of erasing mistakes.

“The difference is I’m a little bit older,” Jordan said. “The game is a little bit different. My teammates are a little bit different. I feel good about myself. I feel good about what the team did tonight.

“I’m not happy with the outcome, but I look at it as the beginning of a long season.”

Jordan clearly is facing a long journey as he tries to lead the Wizards, a team he helped build as an executive, out of the second. He’ll encounter some good nights and bad nights along the way and the results will always be in the spotlight.

Jordan’s ability to generate a buzz among fans and reporters, who turned out in a throng of 600 to cover a somewhat ragged opening-night game between two teams with bleak prospects, has not changed. There was an energy in the Garden during pre-game warmups, but neither Jordan’s performance nor the game lived up to the hype.

“Like most first games, it was a little ragged,” Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said, who got 28 points from Sprewell and 22 from Houston.

“The first half, we were trying to play for ourselves on offense too much. We were intense on the wrong side of the floor.”

Wizards coach Doug Collins, who was hand-picked by Jordan, was pleased with his team’s intensity.

“If we can give ourselves a chance to win every night, we’re going to win our share of games,” he said. “The Knicks are a great team in close games. I thought the difference in the game was their experience.”

Jordan has experience. He clearly still has the skill to be considered the best player on his team. The problem is, his team isn’t very good.

“This is a young team,” Jordan said. “They’re going to get better, hopefully. With this, we’ll watch the films and learn from it.”