Wizards' Win Is a Clinch

gilbert arenas - caron butler - wizards
The return of Caron Butler (back) and 35 points from Gilbert Arenas is just what the Wizards need to beat Cleveland, 104-92, and clinch a playoff berth Sunday at Verizon Center. (Preston Keres - The Post)
By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 17, 2006

Caron Butler gave the Washington Wizards and their nervous fans a dose of what they've been missing late in the first half of last night's crucial game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Verizon Center, and it had nothing to do with his skills as a basketball player.

With the Wizards leading by 13, a driving Gilbert Arenas was fouled hard by Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. As Arenas picked himself up and prepared to shoot two free throws, Butler walked over to Ilgauskas and let the 7-foot-3, 260-pounder know that he didn't appreciate the extra contact.

"I can't say exactly what I said, I just told him that he didn't need to be fouling my man like that," said Butler, who was back in the lineup after missing five games with a sprained right thumb. "I just let him know that what he did was unnecessary."

Butler has displayed that hard-nosed approach all season and with him back last night, chipping in with 21 points, 8 rebounds and 4 steals, the Wizards snapped a five-game losing streak and clinched a playoff berth with a 104-92 victory over the Cavaliers, who are already locked into the fourth seed.

The win kept the Wizards (40-40) in fifth place, a game ahead of the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls with two games to play. The Wizards can clinch the fifth seed -- and a first-round meeting with Cleveland -- with wins in their final two games, tomorrow at Verizon Center against Milwaukee and Wednesday at Detroit.

Should the Wizards and Bucks wind up with the same record, the Bucks would hold a tiebreaker because they've already beaten the Wizards twice, so tomorrow night's game will be almost as essential as last night's.

Playing at home for only the third time in 13 games, the Wizards came out energized, took a 25-17 first-quarter lead and pushed the advantage into double figures on an Antawn Jamison dunk early in the second quarter.

The Wizards had four players score in double figures, led by Gilbert Arenas, who scored 35 points. Through three quarters, before Cleveland Coach Mike Brown turned the game over to his reserves, the Wizards shot 47.9 percent and turned over the ball only four times.

Coach Eddie Jordan's game plan called for Butler to get involved early. He received the ball in the post on Washington's first two possessions and though he missed short jump hooks both times, Jordan and his coaching staff were encouraged by what they saw.

"It was more important to see him catch the ball without pain, catch the ball and dribble and take a shot without pain," Jordan said. "Before the game the advice was, either brace it or tape and he didn't want either so we wanted to get the ball to him early and see how he looked."

Butler struggled with his shot early on, missing four of his first five attempts, but he warmed up in the third quarter by making four of eight shots and scoring nine points while helping the Wizards turn the game into a blowout.

Butler scored on the final two possessions of the third. First, he grabbed an offensive rebound and banked in a shot off the glass and then he ended the quarter by making a three-pointer from the top of the key with 0.2 of a second remaining.

Fans erupted in a standing ovation after the three-pointer and Butler was engulfed by excited teammates as he made his way back to the bench.

"My teammates did a good job of getting me involved early, getting me in rhythm and this was a fun game to play in," Butler said. "We needed this win."

The Cavaliers pulled LeBron James (17 points), former Wizard Larry Hughes (14 points) and the rest of their starters to open the fourth but the reserves kept things mildly interesting by twice trimming the Washington lead to nine in the final five minutes.

The Wizards put the game away when Arenas scored on a pretty reverse layup, Jamison dunked off a pass from Butler and Arenas made a tough 21-foot turnaround jump shot to push the lead back to 13 with 2 minutes 40 seconds remaining.

After the final buzzer sounded, the playoff celebration was mild compared to the one fans and players engaged in last April, when the Wizards clinched a berth at home with a win over the Chicago Bulls. Most players, including Butler, who was with the Los Angeles Lakers last season, simply walked to the locker room and turned their attention to tomorrow night's game against the Bucks, who have beaten the Wizards twice this season.

The overall mood suggested that nobody on this team is satisfied with simply making the playoffs.

"We want to win these last two games," Jordan said. "We want to hold on to fifth. We left here 14 games ago for a long road trip in fifth place. We came back in fifth place despite all the trials and tribulations we've been through so that's the goal. Hang on to fifth. Now let's go win a game against Milwaukee."

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