Wizards, Bucks Are on Cusp of Playoffs, and Thin Ice

By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 12, 2006

MILWAUKEE, April 11 -- The best thing about Wednesday's game between the Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks is that one of the struggling teams is going to come away with a win.

That's something neither the Wizards (39-38) nor the Bucks (37-40) have been doing much of lately. The fifth-place Wizards lead the Bucks and Indiana Pacers by two games in the Eastern Conference with five games remaining but have lost three straight games. The Bucks have dropped four straight and five of their last six.

After Wednesday's game, the Wizards will meet the Bucks once more, Tuesday at Verizon Center, before concluding the regular season the following night at Detroit.

Washington failed to clinch a playoff berth Monday night after a 105-97 loss at Philadelphia and are in danger of dropping out of the fifth seed.

Should Milwaukee or Indiana move past them into the fifth spot, the Wizards could face the unenviable task of playing the league's hottest team in the first round of the playoffs.

Despite Tuesday's loss at Chicago, the New Jersey Nets have won 15 of their last 17 and are all but locked into the third seed. While no Wizard will say it publicly, the team would clearly prefer a first-round matchup with LeBron James, Larry Hughes and the Cleveland Cavaliers over one with Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and the Nets.

First however, the Wizards need to wrap up a playoff spot, and they'll have a chance to do that Wednesday at the Bradley Center, where they've won each of the last two seasons.

"This kind of reminds me of last year when we lost five games in a row toward the end of the season," said Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas, who has raised his level of play over the last six games, averaging 30.8 points and 7.7 assists while shooting 46.6 percent. "We have to get this next win and get that playoff spot taken care of."

The Wizards looked focused and played with the kind of passion that suggested they understood what was at stake against Philadelphia on Monday night, but with third-leading scorer Caron Butler missing his third straight game with a sprained right thumb, they couldn't match the 76ers in the fourth quarter.

Butler, who is from nearby Racine, Wis., is listed as day-to-day and more will be known about his status for Wednesday night's game at shoot-around in the morning. The Wizards could obviously use Butler's 17.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game, but his value goes far beyond statistics.

When the Wizards traded Kwame Brown to the Lakers for Butler summer, Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld lauded Butler's "toughness" before mentioning his basketball skills.

Butler has made big shots in key situations all season and has provided needed swagger, as evidenced by the time he went chest-to-chest with a trash-talking Kevin Garnett in a win over Minnesota in February, and the time he stared down Kobe Bryant after hitting a clutch three-pointer over the Lakers' superstar in a December victory.

The Wizards haven't displayed such confidence of late. They spent nearly as much time bickering with the referees as playing basketball Monday night and went without a field goal for 5 minutes 17 seconds as the 76ers put away the game late in the fourth quarter.

Arenas and Antawn Jamison combined to score 69 points but needed more help.

"We rely so much on Gil and Antawn right now to score for us so they can load up on those guys," Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said. "If they beat one guy, they have to beat a second guy. That's tough. We just need to have other guys step up and take a shot. Get to the line. Gil and Antawn are so locked into doing it themselves . . . there's a fine line there."

The Bucks have experienced their own problems. The Nets came into Bradley Center on Sunday, jumped out to a 31-12 first quarter lead and cruised to a 95-83 win. Bucks Coach Terry Stotts has tried to change things up by replacing T.J. Ford at point guard with Charlie Bell, and may go with Bell on Wednesday night.

While Milwaukee eyes the Wizards and Pacers, the Bucks' lead over eighth-place Chicago and Philadelphia is only one game. So there is the possibility of missing the playoffs altogether if they don't play better basketball.

"We've got to come out [Wednesday] like a whole new team," Bell told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "We've got to put everything that has happened to date behind us and go out there and play like madmen."

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