As Wizards Push West, So Do the Challenges

By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 21, 2006

DENVER, Dec. 20 -- Sacramento's Arco Arena was the site of one of last season's biggest wins for the Washington Wizards, a 97-84 victory on March 28 that gave the team a much-needed boost going down the stretch of an intense race for playoff positioning.

The stakes won't be nearly as high Thursday night when the Wizards (12-12) return to Arco to play the Kings (10-13), but Coach Eddie Jordan's team could use a win because a meeting with the hot Suns is looming on Friday night. Phoenix is riding a 15-game winning streak.

Washington opened the four-game road trip with a 147-141 overtime win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night but followed it with a sluggish performance in a 117-108 loss to the suspension-depleted Nuggets.

Following practice on Wednesday, Jordan said he talked to his team about the slippage he has seen recently, even during impressive home wins over Denver and Miami last week and Sunday's victory over the Lakers.

"We've gotten away from really defending the paint," Jordan said by telephone from Sacramento. "We still have to concentrate on that. I told the guys the more we score, the more our defense suffers little by little. We get caught looking to leak out to go score and we don't finish defensive possessions. I just kind of reminded them that we have to lock in and concentrate on our defensive principles."

Offense has not been a problem for the Wizards lately. In the last eight games, during which the Wizards are 6-2, they have scored at least 100 points in every game. During the eight-game stretch, Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison combined to average 79.5 points, and the surge has made them the highest-scoring trio in the league (67.2 points per game).

If they can continue scoring at their current pace, Arenas, Butler and Jamison will have a chance to make history. The last time three teammates combined to average 67 points in consecutive seasons was 1986-87 and 1987-88 when Boston's Larry Bird, Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale and Seattle's Tom Chambers, Dale Ellis and Xavier McDaniel did it.

The Wizards appear to be catching the Kings at a good time. Sacramento has dropped eight of its last 10 games and appeared to reach a new low during a 109-91 home loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Monday night.

Arco Arena has traditionally been one of the toughest venues in the league, and the Kings have sold out 326 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the league. With no other major professional sports teams in the area, fans follow the team with a passion normally reserved for college sports, and the Kings play in front of one of the loudest crowds in the league.

However, home-court advantage has not been a factor this season for the Kings, who are 7-6 at home after going 162-43 at Arco during the last five seasons. Last season's win was Washington's first at Arco Arena since the 1996-97 season.

"It's always a tough place to play and they have some explosive players," said Jordan, who was an assistant coach with the Kings for five seasons and was head coach for 97 games during the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. "Plus, it's one of those things we face when a Western Conference team comes into our building. We're an Eastern Conference team out here on a long trip and they are going to have a certain level of comfort there. We have to play well."

Wizards Notes: Allen Iverson's move from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Denver Nuggets should help Arenas's chances of being voted onto the Eastern Conference all-star team. Iverson was the leading vote-getter among guards in the East ahead of Dwyane Wade, Vince Carter and Arenas.

Iverson will not be eligible to play for the East but his votes will carry over to the West, where he's now the third-leading vote-getter behind Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash. Arenas was added to the East's all-star roster as an injury replacement last season after not being voted in by fans and not being selected by the conference's coaches. The All-Star Game is Feb. 18 in Las Vegas.

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