The Back-to-Back Lacks

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 9, 2007

In the four games since Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison returned, Gilbert Arenas has reheated his hibachi grill, and the Washington Wizards have managed to hold onto a flimsy lead in the Southeast Division. Having Butler and Jamison back, however, couldn't correct an all-too-familiar problem for the Wizards this season: their inability to win the second of back-to-back games.

After losing, 100-97, in Atlanta on Wednesday, the Wizards (34-26) are 4-11 on the last leg of back-to-back games this season, a statistic that looks more unsettling given that their final 22 games include seven sets of back-to-backs, beginning with a critical set against New York and division rival Miami this weekend. "It'll be a good weekend for us to sweep," Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said.

If it were only that simple. The Wizards have swept back-to-back games only three times this season, with the last time occurring Jan. 19-20 against Orlando and Boston. On the other hand, the Wizards have been swept in back-to-back games four times this season.

They finished with a disappointing split against the Toronto Raptors and the Hawks, the first back-to-back set since Butler came back from back spasms and Jamison returned from a sprained left knee.

Asked to assess where Butler and Jamison are after four games back, Jordan was measured. "They're on cue," he said. "They've both been good. They're not quite there, but they're okay."

Jamison is averaging 21.8 points and 6.3 rebounds since he came back, while Butler is averaging just 13.8 points and 8.5 rebounds. But the duo has freed Arenas of constant double-teams and helped him break out of his shooting slump -- Arenas is shooting 51.5 percent (34 for 66) from the floor and 42.3 percent (11 of 26) from three-point range the past four games.

Butler said he physically felt fine after playing back-to-back games, with the exception of getting kicked in the shin in Atlanta. Jamison said he has his wind back and didn't have much trouble getting his legs underneath him. Both would have felt better with a victory over the Hawks.

"We've got a string of back-to-back games coming up, so it's time for us to man up and find a way to get this situation resolved," Jamison said. "We don't want it to be an Achilles' heel going down the stretch, but I think now, it's definitely in our minds that we have to start winning some back-to-back games."

The Wizards couldn't have asked for a better scenario for a back-to-back sweep than Wednesday in Atlanta, coming off an impressive 20-point victory against the Toronto Raptors. The Hawks were missing three starters -- including all-star Joe Johnson -- and had recorded just one victory since the all-star break, yet the Wizards managed to blow a 10-point second-half lead and collapsed during a game-changing, 44-23 avalanche. "We can't let an opportunity like that get away," Jamison said. "We've got to do a better job of being disciplined and taking advantage of situations. We knew the task at hand."

A major reason the Wizards struggled against the Hawks was because the Princeton offense -- which worked to perfection against Toronto, as the Wizards had 29 assists, three short of the season high -- morphed into a one-on-one free-for-all, as players took turns in isolation.

The ball wasn't rotating, the shots weren't falling and the turnovers kept piling up. The Wizards had just 15 assists compared with 21 turnovers. After the game, a few players were grumbling about the lack of ball movement. "A lot of people are mad," DeShawn Stevenson said after going 1 for 8 for six points and five turnovers on Wednesday. "We don't like losing. We got to bounce back because we got a sour taste in our mouth."

Butler said the Wizards just need to play with the necessary energy to get through the grueling stretch ahead. "If we play 48 minutes with no drop-offs and keep playing good team basketball -- and nobody's trying to be a hero and go out there and do it on their own -- we'll be fine," Butler said. "We've got to trust the system Coach put us in and we'll be all right."

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