By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2008
Perhaps no team in the NBA has shown the ability to bounce back quite like the Washington Wizards this season.
The Wizards opened the season with five losses, then reeled off six straight wins. They've lost nine games by 20 or more points but are 6-3 in the game immediately following those losses. And, despite a flurry of injuries to key players like all-stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, there remains a slim chance the Wizards (42-38) could overtake Cleveland and gain home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. For that to happen, the Wizards would have to win both their remaining games, and the Cavaliers would have to lose both of theirs.
The team's perplexing habit of looking like a contender one night and a lottery-bound doormat the next was never more obvious than last week when the Wizards impressively took down the Boston Celtics for the third straight time at Verizon Center, only to get demolished Friday night at Detroit.
Twenty-four hours after the Pistons manhandled them in a 102-74 rout, Coach Eddie Jordan's team played some of its best basketball in a 109-93 home win Saturday over Philadelphia.
They did it without Butler, who is day-to-day with a bruised right knee, and the win combined with Toronto's loss to Detroit yesterday ensured the Wizards no worse than the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.
"That's the NBA," Jordan said after Saturday's win. "The NBA is like that. Our guys rose to the occasion at home. We talked about not meeting that challenge [Friday night] and that's why, over the last third of the season, I didn't want our guys talking about the playoffs and I didn't want them to talk about the fifth spot. It's about how you perform this 48 minutes that's right in front of you. That's the only way you can concentrate. If you're thinking about the playoffs or your seed, you can't perform that way."
Following the back-to-back set with the Pistons and 76ers, Jordan gave players the day off yesterday and the team will meet this morning for a shoot-around to prepare for the Pacers, who need two wins and two Atlanta losses to make the playoffs.
Jordan is optimistic that Butler's injury won't be a lingering issue. The team is 9-13 without Butler and has only two games (Indiana and at Orlando on Wednesday) in which to gear up for a first-round series against LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
He wasn't required Saturday night because several players -- Antawn Jamison (25 points and 13 rebounds), Arenas (20 points, five assists), Antonio Daniels (12 points, six assists) and DeShawn Stevenson (19 points, including five made three-pointers) -- had strong performances.
During the fourth quarter when the Wizards outscored the 76ers 31-9, Arenas played some of his best basketball of the season. On one play he split a double team with a behind-the-back dribble and then scored on a beautiful reverse layup. On another, he muscled his way past Philadelphia's best defender, Andre Iguodala and then dropped a no-look pass to Andray Blatche who scored on a layup.
And later Arenas showed that he still has nearly limitless range by draining a three-pointer from 33 feet.
The combination of Daniels, who has one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the league, and Arenas, who has added a fast-break dimension that was lacking when he missed 67 games with a left knee injury, gives the Wizards a difficult combination to stop.
In five games since making his return against Milwaukee on April 2, Arenas is averaging 14.6 points and 3.8 assists and is shooting 42.3 percent from three-point range.
"It's a world of difference," Jamison said of Arenas's return. "You miss it. For him to come out and play the way he did [Saturday] night says volumes about what he means to this team and what he brings to this team. I'm glad we are able to get him back at this point in the season, before the playoffs, because of the difference he can make. He makes us go."