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Relentless Thomas Gives Wizards Inside Presence

Since Replacing Haywood in the Lineup, Washington Is 4-0

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page E09

It was a bit of poetic justice delivered by the Washington Wizards' poet laureate.

During the third quarter of the Wizards' 111-102 win Friday, Etan Thomas said Orlando Magic center Kelvin Cato boasted toward the Wizards' bench, "Nobody ever dunked on me." Shortly thereafter, Thomas slid right in to make Cato look foolish. Thomas got the ball under the basket, palmed it like a grapefruit and tried to slam it right over Cato's head -- but the ball slipped out of his right hand and hit the back of the rim.

Etan Thomas's thunderous dunks and aggressive play has given the Wizards a strong inside presence. (Joel Richardson - The Washington Post)

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Undeterred, Thomas grabbed the rebound and went right back at Cato, dreadlocks dancing after he hammered a one-handed dunk on Cato. Thomas then stared defiantly at the 7-foot Cato while his teammates on the bench leaped in exultation.

"I didn't hear [Cato] say it. My teammates told me," Thomas said, laughing. But "he's a shot-blocker, so you've got to take it right to him."

Thomas didn't have to know that Cato made the challenge, because as guard Larry Hughes said, Thomas "will try to dunk on everything."

Thomas's aggressive approach toward Cato mirrors the way he has attacked his role ever since he was inserted into the starting lineup after Brendan Haywood broke his left thumb against the Los Angeles Clippers on March 25. He has filled in admirably for Haywood, wielding his massive, wristband-covered arms and displaying reckless abandon on both ends of the court as the Wizards have gone 4-0.

The 6-foot-10 Thomas will make his fifth start of the season as the Wizards host the Indiana Pacers at MCI Center today. Thomas has scored in double figures in each of the past four games, grabbing 10 or more rebounds twice and averaging 12.8 points and 9.3 rebounds in 30.8 minutes. He also is shooting 54 percent (20 of 37).

"I'm using this as a showcase," said Thomas, who released a book of poetry called, "More Than an Athlete" last month. "You have to take advantage of the opportunity. When I'm out there, I just work hard. I try to give an inside presence. I'm going hard for rebounds. That's the way I play."

After signing a six-year, $38 million contract extension last summer, Thomas missed the first 32 games of the season after suffering an abdominal strain on the second-to-last day of training camp. He was cautious with his comeback, unwilling to return sooner than necessary and risk another setback.

But when he made it back on the floor, Thomas struggled to find a rhythm. Thomas was active if not effective and didn't make his presence felt until he scored a career-high 23 points with eight rebounds against the Milwaukee Bucks on Feb. 5.

"It was definitely a slow process because you just have to get used to moving. Your abdominal area is the center of everything, so I just didn't feel right out there," he said. "It was a process. That's where patience comes in."

Thomas has come on strong since he missed three games because of the flu last month. He had his first double-double of the season in a loss in Milwaukee on March 18, but he has looked more confident in his role as a starter.

"He's a guy that in the past wasn't comfortable starting. It's a necessity for him to start, and he's raised his game to another level. We're happy about that," Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said. "He's gotten better and better every game after he came back from his injury. He has played very well as a starter. He has given us that physical presence and that force that he had last year that we really missed early in the season."

Until Haywood returns -- possibly by the final week of the regular season or in the playoffs -- Thomas will continue to give the Wizards a different look with his willingness to bang and push inside.

"He's going to put the pressure on the defense to be physical," Hughes said. "If they don't step up, he's going to go right over you, or through you."

The Wizards have already guaranteed that they won't have a losing record for the first time in seven years. But that isn't enough for Thomas, who has been with the team longer than any player on the roster.

"I'm looking for big things with this team," said Thomas, one of the Wizards' three captains. "It's a crucial time and it's a very important time because we have 11 games left. We want to end the season on a positive note, doing something special that we haven't done in a long time. Being a part of that is really special for me. It's really a blessing. We know what we are capable of doing and we're not satisfied. Yeah, we're doing better than people thought we would and better than we have in the past, but we're definitely not going to settle [for that]."

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