Facing NBA trade deadline, Washington Wizards' Caron Butler breaks out of slump with game-winner

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 7, 2010

ORLANDO -- His jab-step kept creating space, his hesitation crossover dribble kept Orlando Magic defenders stumbling and Caron Butler kept driving and burying jumpers until his final 19-foot shot splashed through the net with 0.5 of a second remaining to give the Washington Wizards a 92-91 comeback victory on Friday night.

It was the first time since Coach Flip Saunders's arrival that Butler played with such determination and "super" aggression, as Saunders described it.

"It was by far his best game overall," Saunders said after Butler scored 29 of his season-high 31 points in the second half to help the Wizards overcome a 21-point deficit and upend the Southeast Division-leading Magic.

But with inclement weather forcing the postponement of the Wizards' game against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday, Butler may not have many more opportunities for a repeat performance while wearing a Wizards uniform.

Washington (17-32) now has just two games before the Feb. 18 trade deadline, and Butler has been mentioned in trade rumors involving Dallas, Houston, the Los Angeles Clippers, New Jersey, Portland and Phoenix. Butler, an eight-year veteran who was traded twice in his first three seasons, said he's not worried about being traded. But he sounded like someone who has accepted that he might finish this season elsewhere.

"I understand it's business. You take the bitter with the sweet and try to have some magnificent moments before the deadline," he said. "I'll always view Washington as home. I had a great time here. I had the most success I ever had. I feel like the city adopted me with open arms, like never before. I'm a Washingtonian. We'll see what happens, but whatever happens, I'll always love the city."

Butler, who turns 30 in March, is in the midst of the most difficult of his five seasons in Washington.

He first struggled to develop chemistry with Gilbert Arenas, looked uncomfortable in Saunders's offense and privately grumbled about his role with the team. He is averaging just 16.8 points, shooting 42.2 percent and even Arenas's season-long suspension didn't free him from his season-long slump.

All the off-court disturbances and on-court failings have worn on him. "It's been hard to focus. It really has," Butler said. "You can say all the right things, about staying positive and moving forward, but it has been hard. It takes a toll on you mentally and physically. This is the only time that you can escape from all of that."

Having noticed Butler's deflated spirits, Saunders spoke with him for about 15 minutes on Thursday. "We had a little talk in the weight room, just about leadership and taking charge and trying to be more of a vocal leader and not taking a step back, but taking a step forward," Saunders said. "He was very receptive. He said he was going to relish the opportunity to step up and do that."

With a bruised left knee limiting him in the first half against Orlando, Butler found his rhythm in the second half, as he made all eight of his free throws and 10 of 16 field goals, including a ridiculous, one-handed runner off the glass while Magic point guard Jameer Nelson grabbed his left arm.

And, unlike in a 94-93 loss against Dallas last month -- when Butler broke from the play that Saunders called and had his attempt blocked by Shawn Marion -- he ran the correct play in the final seconds, setting up in the left corner before hitting the game-winner over Matt Barnes.

"We tried all three of our bigger wing guys on Butler," said Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy, who used Barnes, Vince Carter and Mickael Pietrus on Butler. "He killed them all."

When asked if this game was an opportunity for him to showcase himself to potential suitors around the league, Butler said, "Hopefully it keeps the ownership that we have interested and I stay" in Washington.

The prospect of joining a winning situation elsewhere wasn't appealing, either. "We'll turn this into a winning situation," he said of the Wizards. "I want to finish what we started, definitely."

But Butler said the attention that he has received this season is flattering. "I'm popular. I've always been a popular kid, since middle school, I've been bigger than everybody. I'm very popular right now."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company