Wizards' Jamison, Butler Set To Return

By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2007

Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison joined their teammates for a brief but energetic practice yesterday at Verizon Center and expect to be in the starting lineup tonight when the Washington Wizards attempt to break a four-game losing streak when they host the Atlanta Hawks.

Butler, who has missed three straight games with back spasms, and Jamison, who has missed 12 games with a sprained left knee, are two-thirds of the league's most potent scoring trio. Their absence has highlighted the struggles of Gilbert Arenas, whose shooting slump has coincided with a 4-8 stretch for the Wizards (31-25), whose Southeast Division lead over the defending champion Miami Heat has dwindled to 3 1/2 games.

Butler's lower back bothered him for several days last week, but the spasms worsened during the team's hellacious commute from Chicago to Minneapolis on Saturday. The trip included a delayed flight, several hours on a runway in snowy Duluth, Minn., where the plane was diverted, and finally a 3 1/2 -hour bus ride from Duluth to Minneapolis for Sunday's game against the Timberwolves.

Butler's back tightened during the trip and when he woke up Sunday morning, he couldn't bend over. It's taken several days of rest, stretching, massages and other exercises for Butler to feel like himself.

"I felt good at practice, I had a nice rhythm out there and even though I had a little pain, it's something I can play through," said Butler, who warmed up prior to Wednesday's home loss to Miami but wasn't quite ready to test the back in game conditions. "Everybody was just trying to make sure it was nothing too serious."

Jamison went down clutching his left knee following a collision with teammate DeShawn Stevenson in the first quarter of a win over the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 30. The injury did not require surgery and Jamison has made steady progress. He practiced for the first time on Monday. Coach Eddie Jordan said that barring any overnight relapses, Butler and Jamison would start against the Hawks (22-36).

"We'll see what happens" tonight, said Jamison, who scored 35 and 34 points in the two games before his injury. "If everything is going well, I will stay in there but if I get winded they will take me out. My mentality going into the game is that I am going to be playing the way I am accustomed to."

Washington's 4-8 slide has coincided with the absence of Jamison, the team's third-leading scorer, second-leading rebounder and captain. The absence of Jamison's three-point shooting touch -- he's made 95 of 240 attempts (39.6 percent) this season, including several big ones in tight games -- has allowed opponents to slant their defenses to Arenas and Butler.

In the three games since Butler went out, Arenas has been forced to carry the offensive load and the result has been choppy losses at Minnesota on Sunday, at New Jersey on Tuesday and at home to Miami on Wednesday night.

In those three losses, Arenas made 14 of 65 shots overall, only 4 of 31 three-point attempts and totaled 13 assists. Even worse, the "swag" Arenas said he was playing with during a torrid December and January has been replaced by indecision and at times frustration.

During Wednesday's loss to Miami, Arenas split a double team, drove toward the basket and lobbed a pass in the direction of second-year forward Andray Blatche, who has made seven straight starts. Blatche may have been a step late or expected a different kind of pass, but the result was an aborted play that did not result in two points for the suddenly offensively challenged Wizards.

Arenas, who was excused from practice yesterday, has also been bothered by soreness in his right shoulder, which he describes as more of an annoyance than a hindrance. But he clearly hasn't been himself.

In the 12 games since Jamison went out, Arenas has made 19 of 101 three-point attempts and many of the misses have come on open shots, the kind he was making with ease during his hot streak.

"I can't really put my finger on anything and say, 'This is why I'm missing so many shots,' " said Arenas, who planned to go to the gym for some shooting last night. "It's just off lately. But, 19 out of a 101? C'mon, that's not me. I don't know what that is. My feeling is that it's going to come back at the right time."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company