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With Tables Turned, No Mercy Is Shown

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By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, December 6, 2007

As sweet as his disposition is most of the time, Caron Butler can look at the end of the Wizards' bench and become annoyed quickly. The last time the Cleveland Cavaliers were in Washington, last April for the playoffs, Butler was sitting in the very last seat on the home team sideline, his broken hand wrapped, unable to play. "That seat right there," Butler said 45 minutes before last night's tip-off. "I was sitting right there, in that seat, looking over at Agent Zero, helpless to do anything while they swept us out of the playoffs. It's been driving me ever since."

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Butler was happy to simply drive the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the building with their fifth consecutive loss, 105-86, four of them without the wondrous LeBron James, who sat nattily attired on the visitors' bench this time around with a sprained left index finger. The switcheroo wasn't lost on the Wizards. Asked about the Cavaliers having to play without LeBron, who was within shouting distance of averaging a triple-double until he got hurt, Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said it was "like the neighborhood bully coming to the fight without the brass knuckles and the baseball bats. We need to have a 'no mercy' mentality and return the favor."

In other words, it wasn't supposed to be a game . . . and it wasn't. The Wizards led by as many as 28 points, goofed around a little bit as Cleveland cut the margin to nine, then pulled away again with rather gaudy contributions from a whole lot of people. Butler scored 27 points and grabbed seven rebounds.

Antawn Jamison had 17 and 12. Brendan Haywood -- and we'll get back to Haywood in a bit -- had 17, 10 and 5 blocked shots, and outplayed Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

Okay, Cleveland played without not only LeBron, but Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall and the newly re-signed Anderson Varejao, which is a chunk of talent missing from the Eastern Conference champs. The Wizards don't always do what they're supposed to. But they have in recent games, even without Arenas, and absolutely sense the need to go on a run during this stretch of playing eight of the next nine games at home.

Tomorrow is a tough assignment: Phoenix, which is 10-1 already against the East. After that? The Nets, last-in-the-league Minnesota, the unbelievably awful Miami Heat, Sacramento without leading scorer Kevin Martin, the unbelievably awful Chicago Bulls, Atlanta, the Pacers, Bobcats, Nets again, Heat again. If the Wizards want to build some momentum and some confidence in one another, this is the stretch where they have to become a team . . . even without Arenas.

Butler, already an all-star, has driven himself to become one of the best players in the NBA this season. He's one of only two players in the league averaging more than 12 points and hitting at least 50 percent of his three-point shots (Daniel Gibson is the other), and one of only three players in the league averaging 23 points per game and making 50 percent of his shots (Dwight Howard and Carlos Boozer are the others). Butler ranks among the league's top 20 in scoring, shooting percentage, three-point shooting, foul shooting, steals and minutes.

There really isn't anything Butler can't do on the court anymore. A year ago Butler had no range; he hit only 18 three-pointers the whole season. He admits he only shot them in desperate situations and had no real confidence in shooting deep jumpers. And now? He's gone from having no range on his jumper to leading the NBA in three-point shooting, better than 50 percent from beyond the arc. Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown, describing Butler's shooting this year, resorted to the word "deadly. There's not anything you don't like about Caron Butler."

Some players need a lengthy transition to go from role player to team leader. Not Butler. "It's simple," Butler said before the game. "I had to be more aggressive immediately. I was the 'other guy.' I could concentrate on fitting in after Gilbert set the tone, or being efficient. Now, Antawn and I have to take a different approach."

Butler's been fabulous. Jamison is fifth in the league in double-doubles.

That's not exactly a surprise, even though no team can presume its second and third players will each step forward into the primary role.

After that, the Wizards are benefiting from a string of pleasant surprises. And how can you not start with Haywood, who seemingly had worn out his welcome at the end of the playoffs? Haywood, playing against a more accomplished player his own size last night, made 7 of 8 shots and was, well, beyond effective. "Brendan was dominant," Eddie Jordan said, before catching himself. "I realize those are words you don't put together. Brendan and dominant. But he was dominant."

He really was.

Haywood says this is what he can do if he doesn't have to share the minutes, which he doesn't since Etan Thomas is out indefinitely. "That's exactly what we need out of Brendan," Jamison said. "Blocked shots, making it difficult, securing the paint. He is getting into a rhythm offensively, going into defenders instead of stepping away. It opens things up for me and for Caron."

Antonio Daniels is reading the game situations and attempting to smartly do what's needed that night, whether it's helping Haywood get a layup or dunk early or making sure rookie Nick Young is comfortable. Darius Songaila, Andray Blatche and Roger Mason Jr. are making timely contributions off the bench. And Young is starting to figure out he can score in this league no matter who the opposition is. Against the Cavaliers last night he hit 5 of 7 shots, all four of his free throws and scored 14 points off the bench.

Okay, all this wonderful stuff the last couple of weeks has only produced a 9-9 record. As Jordan said, "We miss Gil in the very worst way."

But the offense is more efficient. There's better shot distribution. "It had better be," Jamison said, "because with Gil we could get away with a lot that we can't now. We can't cheat, we can't be careless. Gil's a luxury a lot of teams don't have. And for three months, we don't have him."

But what they seem to be aware of is what they have to do to function at a fairly high level without Arenas. And on nights when the opposition is struggling or vulnerable or has injured players sitting on the bench in suits the way Arenas is, the Wizards appear to have enough talent, enough determination and the sense of urgency to be pretty darned good as long as they need to be.

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