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The Arenas Factor

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More than a few people wonder if team chemistry would take a hit if Thomas returns to the lineup, given the fights he and Haywood have engaged in. But Thomas hasn't even been cleared for contact in practice, so it's unlikely the Wizards will have that bridge to cross any time soon, if at all this season.

If Arenas and Thomas do make it back they'll discover a team with an attribute that was missing the last few years from this group. "Caron and DeShawn have improved our toughness," Jordan said. "Those two started it and it's become sort of contagious."

What's been taken for granted is the nightly contributions from two players who deserve serious all-star consideration: Butler and Jamison.

Only Orlando's Dwight Howard has more double-doubles than Jamison in the Eastern Conference. And Butler is averaging career highs in points, assists, steals and foul shooting. He and Jamison are the highest-scoring forward tandem in the league at 42.9 points per game. Using the NBA's efficiency rating, Jamison ranks sixth among all players in the East.

When people ask Grunfeld how the Wizards have played so well without their all-star he says, "Well, we've still have two all-stars out there, playing on an all-star level."

Beyond talent, what's evolved here is a relatively quiet group that likes to practice and that plays efficiently. Jordan likes most everything about this group, except the bench. "I'm not happy with the bench right now," he said. "The personality of the bench needs to change. We need that NBA intensity. You want energy coming from your bench. But this group is too cool for that."

Even so, Jordan likes the team harmony that has developed. True enough, it's relatively easy to have that when a team goes out and gives a Celtics team that was 30-4 its first consecutive losses of the season.

Though the season isn't half done, the confidence a team derives from beating a team as talented and as hyped as these Celtics is palpable. Even while grinding through Tuesday night's somewhat predictable loss to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden without their primary playmaker, Daniels, the Wizards displayed a stubbornness they lacked the last couple of seasons. They've developed a toughness and resourcefulness Jordan knows he'll have to find a way to maintain when Arenas comes back. The Wizards have discovered how to play well with a smaller margin of error. It would be a shame to see them trade this newly developed edge for more points from Arenas. Even so, they have expanded the possibilities of what this season can be and apparently what they think of themselves relative to the best teams in the Eastern Conference.


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