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Healthy Howard rises to Wizards' defense

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2010; D02

Ten months to the day that he caught an outlet pass in the lane, pushed off his left leg to attempt a layup, grimaced and dropped gawkily to the floor, Josh Howard was back on the same court, facing the same team.

But Howard said that at no point Wednesday did he reflect on that ill-fated night against the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 22, when he suffered a torn left anterior cruciate ligament and had to watch the Washington Wizards founder as he was forced into a lengthy rehabilitation. "It wasn't a thought," Howard said. "Just thinking about a win."

Howard didn't get a win, as the Wizards lost, 87-80, at Verizon Center. But the former all-star forward showed once again that the Wizards are a much more competitive and competent team, especially on the defensive end, with him on the floor. The Wizards (7-20) are just 1-2 since Howard made his debut, but those two losses have come against Miami and Chicago - two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference - and they were in position to win both games.

Since Howard joined the Wizards in a trade deadline deal with Dallas last February, they are 4-3 with him and a whopping 12-40 without him. The Wizards have lost those three games by a combined 13 points.

"It's a good stat for my confidence," Howard said with a smile and shrug. "If I can find a way to rub off on my team, I will. I'm going to continue to play the way I've been playing, lead by example."

Howard has been used as a reserve in his first three games, contributing 10.7 points and 2.7 rebounds in 22.3 minutes per game.

"Eventually, I would like to start, but if that's not in the plans, I'm going to keep doing the things I can do," said Howard, who signed a one-year, incentive-laden contract last summer that could be worth close to $4 million. "Right now, it's me getting healthy first and helping my team second. Either way, it's just being out there for my team. The minutes that I'm getting and I'm giving the team is right. If I'm able to give my team more minutes, hopefully the points will come up."

Howard said he is still regaining the confidence to finish at the basket as he once did, but he remains aggressive on the defensive end. In Howard's three games, the Wizards are playing better overall defense, holding Miami, Charlotte and Chicago to an average of 85.3 points and 43.4 percent shooting (90 for 207) while forcing 22.3 turnovers. On the year, the Wizards are giving up 103.6 points, 47.4 percent shooting and forcing just 16.9 turnovers.

"There is no coincidence that our defense has gotten better with the addition of Josh Howard. Josh has added so much defensively, in the things that he can do," Coach Flip Saunders said. "Even though he is only playing 20 minutes, his leadership and just his ability to lock down defensively on people and know that guy is not going to go at us that much is huge for us."

Howard has recorded one steal in each game. He helped harass Chicago's Luol Deng into a poor shooting night but also made a subtle difference, such as when he jumped out for a surprise double-team on Carlos Boozer, forcing him to miss a rare jumper.

"I've always had a good feeling about playing defense," said Howard, who missed the playoffs for the first time in his career last season. He said he is trying to bring "a winning attitude, number one, and also letting those guys know you can make mistakes just as long as you can come back and correct those mistakes. I think we're picking up on that. It's a learning process."

After finally finishing a game against the Bulls while wearing a Wizards uniform, Howard was able to smile about surviving, and how far he has come.

"Thank you, Jesus. It didn't happen to the other leg," Howard said. "You just keep chucking away. Injuries happen. Unfortunately, that was my first time having a major injury throughout my whole career. To be able to say that is a big thing and to be able to come back is even better."

Blatche, McGee argue

The Wizards have been dysfunctional on the court this season, but may also have some disharmony off it. Multiple league sources have confirmed that teammates Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee were involved in an altercation outside an area club early Friday morning.

Witnesses have said that the players were screaming expletives at each other, but two league sources added that Blatche and McGee also exchanged several punches at the Shadow Room in Northwest Washington.

A Wizards spokesman released a statement late Friday that read, "The team looked into the matter earlier today and determined it was simply a disagreement between teammates."

According to one source, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not at liberty to speak on behalf of the team, teammate Al Thornton tried to step in and separate Blatche and McGee but was punched by a club bouncer. No arrests were made and no one was injured.

In two text messages, Blatche denied that he and McGee have any conflict, but admitted they did get physical - "only one push," he wrote - in an effort to avoid the disagreements going on around them.

The Wizards did not practice on Thursday or Friday and will travel on Christmas to San Antonio, where they will practice in the evening. They will play the Spurs on Sunday.

leem@washpost.com

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