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Without the Glue, It Could Get Sticky

By Mike Wise
Friday, February 2, 2007

At some point in the next few weeks, the basketball will move around the perimeter at the end of a close game and neither Gilbert Arenas nor Caron Butler will have an opportunity to take the last shot. Teams that have been burned before will make some other Wizard beat them.

Someone like Jarvis Hayes or DeShawn Stevenson or doe-eyed, 20-year-old Andray Blatche will have to square and fire as if the season depended on it. And now it might.

The left knee Antawn Jamison severely sprained on Tuesday night will keep the Wizards' third-leading scorer out of the lineup for at least three weeks and maybe as many as six weeks.

Just like that, the Big Three became the Triple-Teamed Two. Jamison was not as dynamic as Arenas and not as consistent as Butler, but his teammates will tell you he was the glue. Jamison's ability to stretch the defense, with either his long-distance marksmanship or his unorthodox arsenal of off-the-wrong-foot runners and pretty teardrops in the lane, allowed his all-star teammates to exploit the one poor soul assigned to guard them.

Arenas and Butler tell you straight up: Part of the reason they've had such success on offense this season was because someone had to guard that third option. Teams could not cheat off Jamison to double-team Butler and Arenas because the 30-year-old Wizards' captain would make them pay from behind the arc or under the basket.

"He's the guy that keeps everything together," Butler said by telephone from his home last night. " 'Twan's leadership, the way his scoring allowed us to get into our isolation plays, is why we were able to do what we do. You don't replace that with one guy, but between the rest of us we got to find a way."

Butler was in a bittersweet mood last night. On one hand, he was about to go live on TNT and unleash a 1,000-kilowatt smile into the camera after he had officially been named to his first all-star team. Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards' president of basketball operations, had told him the news the night before and Butler said he could barely speak upon hearing it.

He and Arenas, as well as Coach Eddie Jordan, will be headed to Las Vegas for what will go down as the gaudiest, most glitz-filled midseason party the league has thrown. "All that work, it all paid off," he kept saying to himself. Then came the Jamison injury update and a reality check.

"Bottom line, Gilbert and I are going to have to be even more assertive, more aggressive," he said. "When we go to practice tomorrow, we need to take some of the guys aside and say: 'There are going to be situations where you're going to get open looks. Don't hesitate. Take those shots. We need to you to take them and make them.' It's funny, you know. These situations always happen when you're having a great season and you have to find a way.

"To me, this is a great opportunity for Jarvis. He's finally healthy. Now he has an opportunity to really showcase his talent on the main stage. Coach Jordan always said, 'What if something happens to Big Three, then where are we?' We're about to find out."

The Wizards have overcome injuries in their recent past, including Larry Hughes's broken thumb two seasons ago. They went 9-11 without Hughes, who was injured in mid-January of 2005. When he returned they regained their rhythm and won the franchise's first playoff series in three decades.

Then and now, the catalyst was the depth Grunfeld acquired through trades and free agency. Darius Songaila, the Lithuanian banger who has missed the entire season recovering from a back injury, is likely to suit up and play tomorrow against the Lakers at Verizon Center. Roger Mason and Calvin Booth, who has been tremendous defensively lately, probably will see more minutes.

"I don't think any one person is going to come in and average 20 and eight like Antawn, but it will be done by committee," Grunfeld said last night. "It's too bad because Antawn had a shot at the all-star team. Sometimes he gets taken for granted and people forget that he can score in a variety of ways. But we have enough depth. Guys have wanted more playing time and now some of them are going to get it."

"This is a long year," he added. "Things happen. It's part of a long season. I remember we lost [Charles] Oakley for something like 40 games once in New York and other people came in and stepped up while he was out. This doesn't change our goals."

But it does alter how to defend the Wizards the next month or so, and it raises real concern whether a team with the best record in the Eastern Conference can maintain home-court advantage for at least a first-round series until Jamison returns.

After the Lakers tomorrow and the Spurs next week, the Wizards also face the Bulls, Nets and the Heat in February -- teams all itching to make up ground in the conference. They also face the Raptors, the Heat again and the Pacers in the first two weeks of March.

In a year in which the East is for the taking, the Wizards are now forced to hold on until their captain comes back. They immediately find out who beyond the Big Three has the qualities to keep them in contention.

Like Butler said, it's time to see what Jarvis Hayes has got.

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