Wizards Encouraged by Glimpse of Future With ‘Core Group'

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 4, 2009

When a team has to wait until April to get its 18th victory, there is rarely reason for optimism. But the Washington Wizards' worst-beat-first, 109-101 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night had encouraging signs all over the floor -- with Gilbert Arenas throwing touchdown passes to Antawn Jamison and alley-oop lobs to Caron Butler; Brendan Haywood rebounding, dunking and contesting shots; and players such as Darius Songaila and Nick Young thrust back into their rightful roles, making significant contributions.

Arenas and Haywood starting together for the first time, leading the Wizards to an upset of the team with the league's best record, represented hope for a franchise that has dealt with misery all season. Arenas and Haywood have played just two games each, with Arenas's playmaking ability and Haywood's defensive contributions already reminding fans and teammates what they have been missing.

They've also presented an argument supporting Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld's decision to keep his core intact. "We hope that this will give people a bit of a preview of what we think we will be next year. This is what we thought we would be this year," Wizards interim coach Ed Tapscott said of the win against Cleveland. "It's nice to be able to capture some of that here at the end."

Arenas, who missed the first 73 games of this season after having surgery on his left knee, said he will play tonight against the Miami Heat only if Javaris Crittenton is unable to go because of back spasms. Arenas is averaging 13 points and 10 assists in his first two games, but he has made just 6 of 23 shots. Arenas has shown an ability to get to the rim but an inability to finish. He has also lacked balance on his jump shot. "Just rust of being out. Being fatigued, not knowing the floor. That's all it is," Arenas said. "I'm glad I don't have 42 turnovers by now, being so tired."

Arenas has no trouble controlling the floor, though, as he has dished out 20 assists with only one turnover in his two games. "Gilbert has come back with a wonderful, pass-first mentality," Tapscott said.

Haywood, who had a double-double against Cleveland with 12 points and 10 rebounds, has provided some defensive backbone for the Wizards upon his return. In his first two games, the Wizards are outscoring opponents by 26 points when he is on floor. Haywood is still trying to regain his timing and stamina. "My weight is fine, but other than my weight I am supremely out of shape," Haywood said. "I don't think I've been this out of shape since high school."

"It was good just to see everybody healthy, see what it could possibly be like in the future," he continued. "It's just different playing with your core group. Everybody knows where they're supposed to be and you're playing with guys who know how to play the game of basketball. It's just a different feel."

The Wizards have been saying for nearly three years that they can compete with anybody when healthy. But "when healthy" has eluded them. The Wizards have a league-best (or worst) 285 combined games missed due to injuries this season, which has been the primary contributor to the Wizards (18-59) needing to win two of the final five games to avoid finishing with the franchise's fewest wins since the league started playing an 82-game season in 1967-68.

With the team hoping to avoid infamy, Butler admitted to being spoiled by the Wizards making the playoffs his first three seasons in Washington. He was especially emotional after the win over the Cavaliers, as he waved his jersey above his head at the conclusion.

"I learned through the course of my career, as a veteran. You've got to cherish moments. The moments and stuff that pass over the past four years, I didn't cherish them like I should've," he said. "But now, these are moments I'm really just taking it in and being grateful. What didn't break me is going to make me. We're getting stronger and we're getting healthy and next year is a big season. I'm going to cherish every moment next year, and it starts now."

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