By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 2, 2007
MILWAUKEE, April 1 -- It was the type of hustle play that summed up Caron Butler's tenacity and unwillingness to give up. Unfortunately for the Washington Wizards, it also was the play that ended Butler's season.
Milwaukee Bucks guard David Noel rebounded an Antawn Jamison miss in the third quarter of the Wizards' 121-107 victory on Sunday and tossed a long outlet pass to forward Ruben Patterson. Butler could have easily let Patterson finish the routine fast break with an uncontested dunk -- and perhaps he should have. Instead, Butler tried to block the shot -- and failed. Worse, when Butler's hand slapped the backboard, the pressure of the impact bent back his right index finger, causing a fracture. Butler knew the severity of his injury immediately, looking down at his hand and telling himself, "This thing's broke."
On an afternoon in which the Wizards were looking to get over an inexplicable and embarrassing overtime loss against Toronto two days before -- and Coach Eddie Jordan decided that he was going to finish the regular season with Etan Thomas as his starting center instead of Brendan Haywood -- the team was dealt a severe blow with 10 games remaining. It will have to go the rest of the way without the all-star forward Jordan calls "Tuff Juice."
Butler didn't join the team on its flight to Charlotte afterward and will have an MRI exam today in Washington. He wasn't optimistic after the game. "Second round [of the playoffs], third round, possibly," Butler said when asked about a possible return. "Right now, I probably won't have a jersey on until next season."
No wonder no one in the Wizards' locker room was in a celebratory mood afterward, even though the win gave them a half-game lead in the Southeast Division over the Miami Heat, which lost earlier in the day to Detroit. "Caron is probably going to be gone for a long time, maybe the season," Jordan said. "We're going to miss his numbers obviously, that's plain and simple. His mind-set, his toughness, his aggressive nature, and the blue-collar hard hat approach to the game. That's something we've missed for two years -- the toughness. You know, you walk down a dark alley, you've got a tough guy with you, you feel tough, too."
Now the Wizards and Butler just feel snake bitten. Butler was averaging 19.1 points and 7.4 rebounds but he has been in and out of the lineup since making his first all-star appearance, missing three games with a bad back and another six with a left knee contusion. The Wizards are 2-7 without Butler and have 10 games remaining in the regular season. "It was always something," Butler said. "I tried to play through injuries, through the adversity and struggles we were going through and to finally get into a rhythm and put all those things behind you, something like this happened. It was a little bit tragic."
In his third game since returning from his left knee injury, Butler was at his best. The native of nearby Racine was back home in Wisconsin, in front of 31 family members and friends, and scored 19 points in just 24 minutes. He even performed a little dance after hitting a buzzer-beating jumper at halftime. "I thought it was a great homecoming, to score 19 and contribute in a major way. Just to go out like that is not a good thing," Butler said.
After Butler broke his hand, Jordan immediately called a timeout, simply to stop a Bucks run that tied the score -- he had no idea that Butler was hurt. "I didn't find out until after the game," Jordan said. When Butler approached the sideline, he said that no one, not even the team's training staff, had any idea that he was hurt "because I wasn't jumping around and causing a lot of attention to myself."
But when head athletic trainer Eric Waters began working with Butler's hand on the sideline, the pain was obvious as Butler rolled his eyes in agony. "It popped out of place. Right now, they're saying season ending. We'll see what happens. I'm going to try to get back as soon as possible."
The Wizards outscored the Bucks 55-41 after Butler left the game with 6 minutes 28 seconds left in the third quarter, and got contributions from all over. Gilbert Arenas was one of seven Wizards to score in double figures, dishing out nine assists to go with 19 points. Jarvis Hayes had 17 points, Darius Songaila had 15, and Calvin Booth had 11 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. Deshawn Stevenson added 13 points and Jamison had 10.
"I was happy when I was back there getting a cast on. I still saw the guys win the game," Butler said. "I'm not going to dwell on this. I'm going to keep my sanity. That's the main thing. Don't let this thing overwhelm you.
"I'm going to stay positive."