By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; D01
Less than one day after the Washington Wizards celebrated a third win to cap what Coach Flip Saunders called their best four-game stretch of the season, the team received the sobering news that starting guard Josh Howard would be out the rest of the way with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Howard was hurt with 4 minutes 23 seconds left to play in the first quarter of Monday's 101-95 victory over visiting Chicago. To that point, Howard had scored a team-high seven points and appeared headed for another quality performance since joining the Wizards from Dallas in a multi-player trade over the all-star break.
The announcement is the latest setback for a franchise that this season has weathered its share of injury misfortune as well as mishaps off the court, most infamously the suspension of Gilbert Arenas after he brought firearms to the Verizon Center locker room.
"You know what, I'm numb to everything at this point," Saunders said after the Wizards' morning practice, "and I think our guys are that way. What we're going to do is we're going to put five guys on the floor, and those five guys are going to go out there and compete and play hard, and if we do that, we're going to give ourselves chances."
Howard had been the featured acquisition in a deal enabling the Wizards to part ways with several core players, including Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood. Four days later, the Wizards sent co-captain Antawn Jamison to Cleveland in a flurry of dealing before the trade deadline.
Howard entered Monday night's game averaging 17 points and four rebounds per game since the trade and appeared rejuvenated after recovering from multiple injuries. He had missed the first 12 games this season while rehabilitating from offseason surgery to his left ankle and wrist and later had to contend with a sore hamstring and a thigh contusion.
"Great organization, great front office, great city," Howard said of his new team following Saturday's 109-104 loss at Toronto, in which he had 17 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists. "You never know what's going to happen at the end of the season, but hopefully I can stick around here longer."
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said Howard would have surgery once the inflammation in his knee subsides, which could be in the next week or two. The team meantime is exploring options to fill the roster spot, with Grunfeld adding the Wizards would not get special dispensation regarding the salary cap. A league source says the Wizards will sign Mike Harris, who is averaging 26.3 points and 9.8 rebounds per game for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBA Development League. The 6-foot-6 forward's most recent NBA experience came in two games this season with the Houston Rockets.
"Obviously it's very unfortunate. I really feel for Josh because he's such a competitive guy, and he brought a lot to the table," Grunfeld said. "He's a slasher, tough defender, very feisty, very competitive guy, and I think he was a good leader for us."
Saunders said Al Thornton will take over in the starting lineup. Thornton is another recent addition and has played in the past three games for the Wizards after spending the past two seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, who selected him 14th overall in the 2007 draft.
Thornton had 17 points and seven rebounds in close to 30 minutes against the Bulls [story, D2]. The last of those points came via a turnaround jumper that extended the Wizards' advantage to 98-95 with 1:45 to play after a late rally had Chicago on the brink of regaining the lead.
Howard's injury comes on the heels of Washington's first three-game home winning streak since April 2008 and as teammates were settling in after nursing various ailments earlier this season. Mike Miller, for instance, had missed 26 games because of illness and injury, including a shoulder sprain and strained calf muscle.
"Injuries have been an issue for us in the past and is an issue again now, losing Josh and his contributions to the team," said forward Andray Blatche, who led the Wizards with a game-high 25 points and 11 rebounds against the Bulls. "It's tough. We're going to have to continue to compete and to hold things down until he comes back."
Wizards notes: The team is "making progress" toward buying out Zydrunas Ilgauskas's contract, according to a person with knowledge of the negotiations. An agreement is not expected until Wednesday at the earliest.