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Wizards Face Major Challenge

"We know [the Celtics] are going to be ready for us," said Caron Butler, driving against James Posey on Saturday. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 14, 2008; Page E10

When the Washington Wizards visited Boston's TD Banknorth Garden on Nov. 2 for the Celtics' season opener, they walked into an electric atmosphere seldom associated with an NBA regular season game.

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A city accustomed to the success of the Red Sox and Patriots unleashed pent-up Celtics pride, heckled Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas from the opening tap to the final buzzer and reveled in their team's 103-83 victory.

The Wizards may face a similar challenge tonight when they return to Boston two days after handing the Celtics their fifth loss of the season. Saturday night's 85-78 victory was the product of relentless rebounding, hard-nosed defense, timely shot-making and accurate free throw shooting.

The Wizards (19-16) held the Celtics to 41.3 percent shooting, a season-low 78 points and finished with a 49-30 edge in rebounding. If those ugly stats aren't motivation enough, the Celtics surely noticed that Wizards guard DeShawn Stevenson celebrated the win by screaming in the direction of their bench after capping the game's scoring with a breakaway dunk in the closing seconds.

The Celtics have not lost consecutive games all season and have typically pounded their next opponent following a loss.

"We know that they are going to be ready for us," said Wizards forward Caron Butler, who finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds while also taking his turns defending Celtics star Paul Pierce. "We're going to have to match their energy."

That was not a problem Saturday night as the Wizards built a first-quarter lead and overcame Boston's tough defense and a third-quarter Celtics run to stay in the game. The key throughout was rebounding. Stevenson, who is generously listed as 6 feet 4, finished with six rebounds -- just as many as Boston's 6-11 Kevin Garnett, who entered the game averaging 10.1 this season.

The Wizards also contained the dangerous trio of Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen. The "big three" combined to score 42 points on 15-of-40 shooting. In the fourth quarter, when the Wizards outscored the Celtics 25-13, the three combined to score five points on 1-of-9 shooting.

One night after gutting out an overtime victory in Atlanta, the Wizards found a way to overcome cold shooting (36.8 percent) and 20 turnovers to beat the league's best team.

"They took us out of our plays," Pierce said. "They trapped the ball. We just weren't aggressive like we usually are down the stretch. And that was the story of the game."

Tough defense is becoming something of a staple for a Wizards team that has never been accused of playing much of it in the past. After allowing 104.9 points per game and 47.3 percent shooting last season, the Wizards are giving up only 96.9 points on 44.4 percent shooting this season.

And after failing to hold a single opponent below 80 points all of last season, the Wizards have done it four times this season (all wins). Starting in training camp, Jordan and his assistants emphasized the importance of staying in front of one's man, fighting through screens and helping each other with quick rotations. Those messages clearly have sunk in.

"It was tough at every level; mentally, physically, emotionally," Jordan said following Saturday's win. "In the second half, they put the defense on us and started pressuring the ball. DeShawn was great. Caron was great. Those two guys are tough guys and our lockdown defensive guys, especially DeShawn. They led the charge for us and everyone followed it. Antawn [Jamison] fights in there getting rebounds. I don't think we have ever played a game like that and won it."

The reward will be a return trip to Boston and another shot at a motivated group of Celtics.

"We have them again [tonight]," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. "I like it when you play back-to-back; it is like a mini-playoff series. It should be a fun game."

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