Wizards Go West; Lakers, Brown Await

By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 16, 2005

The Wizards packed their bags and left Washington yesterday for a five-game Western Conference road trip that could determine the direction of their season. The trip opens with a game tonight against former Wizard Kwame Brown and the Los Angeles Lakers and continues with games at Portland, Seattle, Denver and Phoenix.

When the Wizards return to MCI Center to face the Lakers on Dec. 26, they should know whether Tuesday's impressive 94-74 victory over the New Jersey Nets was a springboard to something better or merely a brief reprieve during an ugly stretch that has included losses in six of their last 10 games.

"This trip is big, it really is," said forward Caron Butler, who was traded from the Lakers to the Wizards along with Chucky Atkins for Brown and Laron Profit last summer. "We're trying to get some consistency right now, and we have to find it on this trip. We have to do something before the new year starts and use that as momentum. It's a long season, but we have to feel that sense of urgency to get something done, and it begins with this trip."

The Wizards (9-11) were particularly crushed by recent close losses to Milwaukee (105-102), Chicago (118-111) and Miami (104-101 in overtime) and enter tonight's game with fewer wins than seven Eastern Conference rivals.

A respectable 17-13 record against Western Conference teams, their best mark since the 1997-98 season, was a major reason the Wizards won 45 games and qualified for the playoffs last season. The Wizards were 3-2 on a western trip last March and 2-0 in series against the Lakers, Memphis Grizzles, Utah Jazz, Seattle SuperSonics and Portland Trail Blazers. They could use a few sweeps this season if they are going to make up for ground lost during their recent skid.

Washington beat Seattle and Portland at home but lost to Denver and is 3-3 against Western Conference teams this season. Guard Gilbert Arenas rested his aching back Tuesday night so that he would be ready for the trip. His fellow all-star teammate, Antawn Jamison, also understands what's at stake.

"A couple of weeks ago we knew we were about to play a bunch of Eastern Conference teams and we knew that was important, but I think this is crucial," Jamison said. "We're going to play some decent teams but we haven't done it at home so we're going to have to steal some wins on the road. For us, this is a very important stretch. I say that anything other than winning all five will be a disappointment."

Getting out of this trip with a sweep might be a bit ambitious considering the Lakers (12-10) are playing their best basketball of the season, Seattle (9-12) is recovering after a slow start that included a 137-96 loss to the Wizards at MCI Center, Denver (12-11) already owns a win over the Wizards and Phoenix (13-8) has won seven of its last 10 games.

One thing is certain: Butler and Atkins will have plenty of motivation to play well tonight against the team that dumped them to acquire Brown last summer. So far, the move has been one-sided, in Washington's favor. Though Atkins has been on and off with both his shooting and playing time and recently came close to demanding a trade, Butler is third on the Wizards in scoring, averaging 14.8 points along with 5.1 rebounds and 1.4 steals.

Things haven't gone as smoothly for Brown, who is averaging 6.3 points and 5.5 rebounds (he averaged 7.0 points and 4.9 rebounds in 42 games as a Wizard last season) and only recently returned to the Lakers' lineup after missing nearly a month with a hamstring injury. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who has never been afraid to tweak a player with comments through the media, playfully questioned Brown's toughness, something the notoriously sensitive Brown didn't appreciate.

Jackson later clarified his remarks, telling reporters, "His interpretation of it was I said I didn't think he worked hard. Kwame works hard. He's a very willing person. He does everything we ask him and more. There's absolutely no problem with that at all."

Brown returned last Saturday at Minnesota and was part of a successful road trip that the Lakers completed Wednesday with a 94-79 victory over Memphis. The 5-1 record on the trip was the Lakers' best on a six-game swing since February 2000. Brown, who finished with 19 points and seven rebounds during a preseason victory over the Wizards in October, had nine points and six rebounds in 25 minutes against Memphis.

If facing Brown provides an interesting subplot to tonight's game, Butler said the Wizards are far more concerned with getting off to a good start on their trip.

"We say, 'Let's get all of them,' " Butler said. "It's like your mother saying to you in school: 'Get A's.' If you get a B, she's still going to be happy. So we're trying to get all five, but if we get four out of five we'll still be in good shape."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company