By Michael Lee
Washington Post staff writer
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; D01
Caron Butler drove around the baseline and tossed up an awkward hook shot that bounded flatly off the rim. Butler recovered the rebound and tapped the ball off the backboard, only to watch it curve off the rim again. He aggressively jumped again, fighting off a crowd of taller players, and made sure the ball went in on the third try.
Butler logged nearly 42 minutes on Monday afternoon, but as the game wore down, he appeared to find the energy to persevere, scoring four of his 18 points in the final 69 seconds to help the Wizards defeat the Portland Trail Blazers, 97-92. He made a 20-foot jumper over Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge and later converted a critical tip-in with 42.9 seconds remaining that served as the decisive basket as the Wizards won their second game in row before a season-low 12,209 at Verizon Center.
"I was fighting for my life," Butler said of his last field goal, which put the Wizards ahead by four points. "I just wanted to help us get over the hump."
The Wizards (14-26) are just 3-5 since Gilbert Arenas was suspended indefinitely nearly two weeks ago, but they are starting to develop an identity in his absence. Aside from their first blowout loss without Arenas in Cleveland, Coach Flip Saunders said that his team has been "playing with a little more spirit" the past seven games, with improved effort in the wake of a major distraction resulting in wins over Sacramento and Portland.
"I stressed to the guys when all this went down, every crisis is an opportunity. I think as a team, as individual players, you've got the choice to either embrace the opportunity or you've got a choice to let your knuckles drag on the ground," Saunders said. "I think our guys have shown more character by embracing this."
Antawn Jamison led four Wizards in double figures with 28 points -- 21 in the second half -- continuing his stellar play this month. Jamison has scored at least 25 points in eight of the last nine games, including five double-doubles.
"For us, we're just trying to find a cure and the only cure we can find right now is to win," Jamison said. "The more we win, the more we get things going in the right direction, the better this story turns out."
Randy Foye added 19 points and a game-high five assists for the Wizards, bouncing back after his string of consecutive games scoring in double figures ended on Saturday against Sacramento. Foye, who has filled in admirably for Arenas, got an earful from Saunders all afternoon. Saunders said he is always hardest on point guards and has repeatedly challenged Foye. "At times I want to strangle him, at other times I want to hug him," Saunders said.
Foye, who is averaging 18.5 points and 6.5 the past eight games, said he doesn't take the criticism personally: "He's tough on me during the game, when I make a mistake he let me know about it. After the game, he loves me up."
The Wizards were also bolstered by the return of Mike Miller. Back after missing the previous four games and 25 of the last 27 because of a sore right calf, Miller came off the bench and scored 13 points, including a go-ahead layup that broke an 88-88 tie with 2 minutes 47 seconds remaining.
"We'll take any wins we can get right now," Miller said. "We're definitely playing a lot better. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we know what we've got now. We don't know if [Gilbert will] be back or when he'll back. We understand what we have in the locker room and we have to do better right now."
Miller had pledged to donate $1,000 for every three-pointer made against Portland to go toward earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. The Wizards only made two three-pointers, with Miller making the first one. "I was hoping for a lot more," said Miller, adding that he may have to extend the effort to another game. "We'll give ourselves a second shot. I'm still going to cut the check."
Andre Miller and Aldridge both had 22 points to lead Portland (25-17), which played its second straight game without all-star guard Brandon Roy (sore right hamstring). The Trail Blazers were held without a field goal for the final four minutes, with Martell Webster hitting a three-pointer that put Portland ahead 88-85.
The Wizards have grown accustomed to playing without Arenas the past two seasons, as he dealt with a nagging left knee injury, but Saunders said he doesn't want his team to rely on a past that includes a playoff run mostly in his absence in 2007-08. "They can say that, but they also played without Gilbert last year, and won 19 games," he said with a laugh. "So which one you want to take?"
Butler is just pleased that the team is playing better. "We have been through this before, losing one of our key guys, stepping up in major ways, different guys accepting different roles," he said.
"We're trying to prove to the city, prove to management that we got what it takes in this locker room to get it done. We got to continue to move forward. It takes time, but now you're seeing it coming."