Washington Wizards hope a healthy Mike Miller will boost the team

"Things haven't gone the way we wanted them to, or as smooth as we wanted them to," Mike Miller said. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

As introductions go, the 2009-10 Washington Wizards couldn't have asked for a better performance than the one they pieced together on Oct. 27 in Dallas. Gilbert Arenas announced his return to the NBA from a serious left knee injury in emphatic fashion, scoring 29 points and handing out nine assists in his first season opener in more than two years. Andray Blatche and Randy Foye came off the bench and combined to score 39 points. Fabricio Oberto, Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson played superb defense on Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Jason Terry, respectively.

And, Coach Flip Saunders picked up his first win with the franchise over a perennial Western Conference power, 102-91, with Antawn Jamison still sidelined with a dislocated right shoulder. "After that," Foye said, "we looked at each other and said, 'Yeah, what everybody is predicting about us might be right.' Fifty-win season and things like that. It felt good."

But nearly three months later, as the Wizards prepare to play their 41st game, against the Mavericks, this season has played out in nightmarish fashion. The Wizards (14-26) have foundered on the court, as they attempt to avoid their second consecutive 50-loss season and the front office considers a roster overhaul. Arenas's comeback has produced few nights similar to his performance in Dallas and several off-court distractions. He has been suspended indefinitely for his behavior following a locker room dispute with Javaris Crittenton involving guns and faces possible jail time after pleading guilty to a felony gun possession charge.

"We had high expectations" after the Dallas win, Mike Miller said on Tuesday. "Things haven't gone the way we wanted them to, or as smooth as we wanted them to -- a lot of injuries and things to distract us."

Saunders said the Wizards' problems on the court started when Miller sprained his left shoulder a week later against the Miami Heat. After being sidelined for three games, Miller came back to play three games with a bad shoulder before straining his right calf. Miller has missed 28 games this season after averaging 71 games played his first nine seasons.

"Not being a part of it has been frustrating," Miller said. "It's been the first time I've had to deal with an injury for a long time, which makes things worse. The games we were losing were close and you felt like you could be a part of that and maybe change those one way or another. That's what made it difficult."

With the Wizards winning two of the past three games that Miller has played -- over playoff contenders Orlando and Portland -- Saunders said he couldn't help but think about how the first half of the season would've played out with Miller on the floor more often than he was on the shelf.

"You can't worry about that now. All you can do is worry about what's going forward," Saunders said. "Our thing is hopefully that we can have a push here over the next week, a push over the all-star break and I guess the positive is, it might sound crazy -- not to use [former Indianapolis Colts Coach Jim] Mora's line, 'Playoffs?!' -- but when you look at the situation and how the East is, you put together a string, you're not that far away.

"I've said that when we lost Mike, that was huge," he said. "You can all of a sudden look and see the difference that he's made when we've had him. I hope we'll have him the rest of the way."

Miller was feeling better on Tuesday, the day after scoring 13 points in about 24 minutes in the win over Portland. Saunders said he would continue to bring Miller off the bench the next few games and limit him to "20 to 26" minutes after Miller played 39 minutes against Orlando and experienced a setback.

Miller said this season has also been "tough" for him with his wife, Jen, and sons, Mason and Mavrick, living across the country in Los Angeles while he plays out the final season of his contract in Washington. Miller said his family is in town visiting during this extended home stand, which has the Wizards playing six of their next seven games at home.

Miller said a playoff push is realistic, with the Wizards just 4 1/2 games out of the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference. "We understand that with the team we have right now, we realize that we're capable of winning games," he said. "We're still on the outside looking in. We still have a lot of games left and ground to make up, but we're capable of doing it. We've got a lot of firepower in that locker room."

This might not be the most appropriate time to reference firepower in the locker room, but Foye and Brendan Haywood haven't given up on how this season can play out. "It's been a roller coaster, not only for the team, but for me," Foye said. "But we definitely don't look at it as a lost season. We're halfway through, so anything can happen."

Said Haywood: "You got to continue to believe in yourself and I believe in my teammates and I believe we can get it done. If we were in the Western Conference, it would be a little different story. Why wouldn't I be optimistic? It's January."

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