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As all-star break approaches, Wizards confront reality

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010; D05

ORLANDO -- The expectations have far exceeded the harsh reality for the Washington Wizards as they prepare to play their final game before the all-star break in Charlotte on Tuesday.

Instead of being in the mix among Eastern Conference playoff teams, they appear headed for a second consecutive lottery season. Instead of celebrating the arrival of Coach Flip Saunders and the return of Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood to a core that included Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, there is speculation around the league that the team could undergo a drastic makeover before the Feb. 18 trade deadline.

And, while there were concerns about Arenas making it through the entire season, no one anticipated that a felony gun charge and subsequent suspension -- not his surgically repaired left knee -- would be the reason for the premature end of his comeback.

"It hasn't gone as smoothly as we'd like, to say the least," Mike Miller said after the Wizards concluded practice at the Orlando Sports Center on Monday.

In keeping with that theme, Jamison didn't practice on Monday because he was unable to catch a flight into Orlando from Miami, where he watched the New Orleans Saints win the Super Bowl. He was expected to join the team in Charlotte for what could be the final game for the Wizards as they are currently constructed.

Haywood, who has been mentioned in trade rumors with Houston and Portland, said he hasn't given that possibility much thought. "Every year, there are a thousand different trades that are supposed to happen, and then you look at the end of the day and the 12th man for the Nets gets traded for the 10th man on the Raptors and that's the only deal done," he said with a laugh. "There are a lot of trade rumors and most of them will not happen. A lot of teams are scared to make moves during the course of the season. So the trade rumors? Doesn't bother me."

Haywood said what does bother him is how the team has performed. "It's been other things going on, but that doesn't matter," he said. "The toughest thing is the fact that we underachieved as a team and we know that."

Butler said that this season could've been viewed differently if the Wizards had more success in close games. Butler's game-winning jumper with 0.5 of a second remaining in Orlando on Friday helped the Wizards avoid losing their 14th game by five points or fewer this season.

"All-star break, I thought we should be right in the thick of things. We still could've been. We let a lot of close games slip through our fingers. If not, we're sitting with 26, 27 wins and in a comfortable situation," said Butler, who has drawn interest from several Western Conference teams, including Dallas, Houston and Portland. "But right now, because we didn't close them games, we're dealing with the rumors, dealing with -- it's just unstable. You have an unstable mind-set."

Saunders said a win against the Bobcats could put the Wizards a bit more at ease heading into the all-star break. "If we win the game, we're 4-2 in our last six games, so it shows that we could get gaining a little bit of tread with 32 games to go," he said. "Our record is not where we want it be. The positive is, you had the injuries and you had Gilbert, and there have been a lot of distractions, but our guys have taken all that stuff and when they stepped on the floor, they put it behind them and competed. If we can do that and keep competing and get some tread over the next 33 games, we'll see what happens."

Miller, a heralded offseason acquisition along with Randy Foye, was forced to miss 28 games because of injuries to his left shoulder and right calf. While he would "love to" play a few more games before the all-star break, he understands that this time away is necessary for the players. "Mentally, this team needs a little bit of a break," he said.

Game rescheduled

The Wizards and Hawks will make up their postponed game on March 11 at Verizon Center. The game, originally scheduled for Saturday, was not held because of the blizzard.

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