Josh Howard nears return to Washington Wizards, but Andray Blatche now hampered by knee injury

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2010; 11:57 PM

The Washington Wizards have found little encouraging news through their four-game losing streak, but swingman Josh Howard continues to make progress with his left knee rehabilitation. Howard practiced on Sunday in full for the first time - without exhaustion or the need for substitution - as he nears his season debut later this month.

Howard has moved fluidly on his surgically repaired left knee since being cleared for five-on-five drills last month, but said he needs a few more practices under his belt before declaring himself ready.

"It's getting close," said Howard, 30, the oldest player on the Wizards' roster. "Staying in practice, not taking any subs, fighting through fatigue, that will be the first thing. Because getting used to that new tendon, it's a big thing. If I can fight through that, I know I'm going to be ready."

Howard has been targeting a return against Charlotte on Dec. 20 or Chicago on Dec. 22 - which would be exactly eight months since he tore his anterior cruciate ligament against the Bulls. But he hasn't ruled out coming back sooner.

Howard said his toughest challenge in practice has been getting his shots to fall.

"I ain't played since February, so that's one of my things - making shots. But I'm sure it eventually will come. I just got to stay positive. I've got to shake the rust off. Once I get back in game shape, I hope we can do big things and help this team out as much as I can."

With the Wizards (6-16√) struggling all season and facing difficult games this week against the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat, the 6-foot-7√ Howard said he has refrained from rushing back too soon, with a setback of tendinitis two months ago serving as a reminder.

"Just fight that anxious feeling," he said. "After basketball, I have to worry about my family and kids. So, that's first and foremost. Second is my job. This organization is a great organization and I want to return it back to a winning one."

Howard added that he wasn't worried that the Wizards would be too far out of contention before he comes back. "We're only three games out [of] the [eighth] spot right now. And we've been in some tight games and lost it at the end. The team chemistry is there, we just have to figure out how to finish games and I think I can be a part of that."

John Wall (sore left foot) and Andray Blatche (left knee swelling) sat out practice to nurse their respective injuries. Blatche said he developed soreness in his knee the day after scoring 16 points in a team-high 40 minutes in the Wizards' 101-95 loss to New York on Friday, in his return after missing two games with a left hip contusion. The condition worsened the next day, Blatche said, and he shut himself down after attempting to run in practice.

"My knee was fine against the Knicks; it was just my hip. I was dragging a little bit, but I tried to compete as hard as I could," he said. "After the Knicks game, I went home, it felt a little strange, but it wasn't swollen. Last night, when I went to bed, it was real stiff, I looked up and it was swollen. Today, I couldn't even bend it. I couldn't even practice."

Blatche said he doesn't expect the injury to force him to sit out against the Lakers on Tuesday. He missed the Wizards' 115-108 loss to the Lakers last week after suffering a bruised hip in the loss to Phoenix. "The pain moved from my hip, now it's in my knee," said Blatche, who pulled down the protective sleeve over his knee to show how much swelling had developed. "I'm going to go home, ice, try to get this thing down. Try to get ready. We've got a couple of days [to prepare] anyway. Only thing that can keep me? from going is if I can't bend this leg."

Blatche has been dealing with soreness in his left knee all season and was forced to miss a few practices. "It comes and goes. When it's gone I'm fine, when it comes back, it comes back stronger and worse," he said.

Blatche has missed two of the past four games, but wasn't concerned about working his way back into the flow. "I'm not worried about my rhythm. I worried about my team, getting some wins. We're on the wrong path and we've got to do something to turn it around," he said.

He added that he was most upset with how the Wizards performed in Sacramento in his absence. "Those kind of games hurt the most. Seeing them go out there and get manhandled as a team. It just seemed guys didn't put forth the effort. Guys didn't give it [their] all that game and it showed. That Sacramento team shouldn't have did what they did to us - but they did, because guys don't really get this. This is a job. You're doing something you love, so why not work hard? Guys wasn't doing it that game, and that's why we got our [butt] kicked. It's all about focus, focus and passion. You got to want it."

Coach Flip Saunders expects Blatche to be available against the Lakers but added it has been hard to find a reliable rotation with his big men, either through injuries or inconsistency. "It's not knowing the guys you have, but our young guys, what to expect," he said. "It can change over the course of a day, going into the game, or in the course of the game."

Kevin Seraphin went from starter against Sacramento to inactive against the Knicks. Trevor Booker worked himself into the rotation on the West Coast, averaging 21.3 minutes against Phoenix, the Lakers and Kings, but was limited to just six minutes against the Knicks.

Saunders recently met with Hilton Armstrong, one of the Wizards' most experienced big men to explain why he has seen less action in the past few games. The 6-11 Armstrong received his first DNP-Coach's Decision of the season against the Knicks. "He had played well, then he kind of slipped in practice," Saunders said of Armstrong. "He's picked it up the past few days."

"The rotation is situational, as much as anything," Saunders said.

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