Wizards once again seek that elusive three-game winning streak

Caron Butler, center, had 10 points and Antawn Jamison grabbed 23 rebounds for the Wizards on Saturday against the Knicks.
Caron Butler, center, had 10 points and Antawn Jamison grabbed 23 rebounds for the Wizards on Saturday against the Knicks. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010

Two days after the Washington Wizards were informed that they would not have Gilbert Arenas for the remainder of the season, Coach Flip Saunders was asked how hard it would be for his players to be motivated the rest of the way. Their best player is barred from being around the team, several others on the roster are constantly mentioned in trade rumors, and a second consecutive trip to Secaucus, N.J., for the NBA draft lottery seems to be a mere formality.

"I told them, 'You have to understand, no matter where you're at and what your record is, you have to be professionals. We're entertainers, so when we step on the floor, there's some 8- or 9-year-old, this could be their only NBA game they watch. You have an obligation to go out and perform and play at a high level,' " Saunders said.

In their first two games since Arenas's season-ending suspension for bringing guns to the locker room, the Wizards haven't always played at a high level, but they have played well enough to defeat New Jersey and New York. They have won consecutive games for the fifth time this season and hope to avoid the disturbing trend of winning two and immediately following it with a losing streak that is even longer.

They won consecutive games against Sacramento and Portland earlier in January and thought that they were turning a corner -- but with a chance to defeat Dallas in the next game, Caron Butler detoured from a play that Saunders called for Randy Foye and had his shot blocked by Shawn Marion as the team lost, 94-93. The Wizards then lost the next three games by a combined 50 points.

"I think that Dallas loss took a lot out of us," Antawn Jamison said after scoring 21 points and grabbing 23 rebounds in a 106-96 win over the Knicks on Saturday. "After that, we didn't play particularly well. I think guys realize we have a couple of games before the break, we might as well finish off the first half of the season on a good note. Guys are refreshing their batteries a little bit. The biggest test now is taking it past two."

The Wizards are in search of their first three-game winning streak since April 2008 as they prepare to host the Boston Celtics at Verizon Center on Monday.

"We got an easy team coming in," Saunders joked about the Celtics, who have struggled in recent weeks, losing three in a row and eight out of their past 12 games, but remain one of the contenders in the Eastern Conference with a 29-16 record. "It's no question our guys better be juiced up and ready to play."

The once-removed champion Celtics defeated the Wizards, 104-102, when the teams met on Dec. 10, as Arenas missed two free throws that could've forced overtime. The Wizards have lost four consecutive games to Boston.

"Definitely a big challenge, but this is something that we want -- to go against one of the best in the East and use them as a measuring stick," Foye said. I still think we got a great shot at making a push for these playoffs."

With their past two wins, the Wizards (16-30) jumped from 14th to 11th in the Eastern Conference, but the playoffs don't seem to be a realistic possibility -- the Wizards are 7 1/2 games out of the eighth spot with 36 games remaining. Still, Saunders and his players believe that the team is making some progress. The Wizards are 5-9 without Arenas this season, but they are 4-4 in their past eight games, which is their best eight-game stretch of the season.

"It boils down to, if we want to be a contender in the East and make the playoffs; if we're serious about wanting to make the playoffs and catch Chicago and Toronto, we have to put a string together," said Mike Miller, who scored a season-high 25 points and made seven three-pointers against the Knicks. "We've dug ourselves a big hole."

In hopes of getting out of the hole, Saunders is making it clear that he will only stick with players who are producing on the floor, which explains why he has relied on reserves Earl Boykins, Andray Blatche and Nick Young at the expense of Foye, Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler in the wins over New Jersey and New York. The bench has responded by combining for 72 points the past two games. "I think the bench now realizes when they play well they are going to stay in the game," he said.

Arenas might be gone for the season, but Saunders won't torment himself worrying about what might've been. He remains focused on trying to win games. "I never look at a situation and say, 'Woe is me or why is it me?' " he said. "I haven't done that."

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