Josh Howard making a difference for the Wizards

The Wizards are 4-1 when Josh Howard (5) is in the starting lineup.
The Wizards are 4-1 when Josh Howard (5) is in the starting lineup. (Jonathan Newton)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Josh Howard's stint with the Washington Wizards has been a sweet temptation, with him showing up like an ice cream truck driver playing a nifty little tune, providing treats during his brief visits and leaving those touched wanting more, waiting for his return. Howard doesn't want it to be this way, but his left knee has refused to cooperate.

He offered another reminder of the difference he can make on Sunday, when he came back from a 19-game hiatus to help the Wizards finally end a 26-game road-losing streak - dating from April 9 - with a 115-100 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Although Howard hadn't played for more than a month, Coach Flip Saunders asked him at the team breakfast if he would be willing to start against the Cavaliers. Howard said he told Saunders, "It's up to you."

On the anniversary of the day the Wizards acquired Howard from Dallas, Saunders decided to give him his first start since Feb. 22 of last season, when Howard tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and set in motion his injury-plagued run with the team. Howard responded by scoring 16 points with five rebounds and two assists in just 25 minutes. He has played a total of 13 games for the Wizards (15-38) but they are 4-1 when he is in the starting lineup.

"You look at him playing, it's not a coincidence that our overall intensity, our overall intelligence improved with him on the floor," Saunders said. "He's got court savvy. He's been through it, he's been to the Finals, he's been through a lot of situations, played different positions, and you look there and watch him play and maybe you say, 'What if he had been healthy this whole year?' "

But Howard stopped concerning himself with maybes some time ago, focusing his energy on contributing to a team and a city that he remains committed to, even as he has dealt with a nagging injury and limited success in Washington.

Howard still talks about his desire to return to the Wizards as a free agent next season and to make his teammates better with his opportunities to play the final 29 games.

After the win over Cleveland, Howard said, "I'm more proud of the guys and them actually getting their first win. Takes a lot to win on the road, even though Cleveland has had their ups and downs this season, they played hard. After [the 24-point loss to San Antonio], to come in and play the way we played, shows a lot of growth."

For now, the Wizards just want to get Howard through the next game on Wednesday in Orlando, where they will play their finale before the all-star break, with the team uncertain about when Rashard Lewis will be able to play on his sore right knee and the knuckle on Al Thornton's dislocated right middle finger still swollen, leaving them with few options at small forward.

Howard gave another tantalizing hint of what he can bring in the third period against the Cavaliers, when he scored 10 of the Wizards' first 16 points to make sure that his teammates didn't show any letup after taking a big lead into halftime. He added a block and two steals in less than seven minutes.

"That's one thing I learned about the second half. You've got to come out and be aggressive," Howard said. "The first team that usually makes the first run, usually comes out with the win. I wanted us to do that. They came out and pushed hard, cut it to 13, but that's when it clicked in me, come in, take over and do something."

Howard opened the period with a three-pointer, then he added a long jumper after the Cavaliers got within 17.

He made three three-pointers, showing little rust after missing so much time, but joked that "vets" don't lose their shots, so long as they keep the same form and a high release.

But Howard stunned himself shortly thereafter, when he jumped in front of Cavaliers swingman Jamario Moon to steal a pass from Mo Williams to ignite a three-on-one fastbreak. After tossing an outlet pass to John Wall, Wall threw a lob to the 30-year-old Howard, who caught the ball and guided it into the hoop as he was fouled.

"That was surprising. I looked at John like, 'Oh my gosh.' I ain't caught an oop in a long time," Howard said with a laugh. "I told him, 'Next year, I'll be able to dunk it' for him."

When Howard made his season debut on Dec. 18, he nearly helped the Wizards get an upset win over the Miami Heat, but he had begun to wear down in less than two weeks and shut down after playing the first half of a loss in Philadelphia on Jan. 5. After getting a platelet-rich plasma shot in his left knee two weeks later to help it heal, Howard took his time to make sure that he was right before he came back.

Wall said it was important Howard came back when he did. "He brings that presence on the defensive end, somebody that's going to be vocal and talk, step up and talk and call you out," Wall said. "Like we say in the huddle, when somebody call you out, it's not bad, it's good because we want to keep working and keep winning. Throughout the whole game, he kept saying, "Don't let up now.' "

"Even when he hasn't been playing, he's been that person - talkative, putting confidence in people, just being a leader," Nick Young said about Howard, "and it showed; we needed him."

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