With Road Trip Looming, A Tough Go for Wizards

Caron Butler, left, scored 15 points against the Lakers after a three-game absence. Antawn Jamison, right, says the Wizards must pick it up on defense.
Caron Butler, left, scored 15 points against the Lakers after a three-game absence. Antawn Jamison, right, says the Wizards must pick it up on defense. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 5, 2008; Page E07

Last season, the Washington Wizards rolled into the month of February with a 27-18 record and a feeling that they could compete with any team in the NBA.

However, starting with a home loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 3, the team hit a rough patch that included injuries to Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler and a stretch of tough opponents that led to a 4-7 record for the month.

The Wizards (24-22) were hoping to avoid a similar letdown this season, but Sunday's 103-91 home loss the Lakers was the team's third straight, and things are not going to get any easier during the weeks ahead.

After playing the 76ers tonight, the defending world champion San Antonio Spurs visit Verizon Center tomorrow and on Friday, the Wizards open a four-game road trip that that takes them to Denver, Phoenix, Golden State and Los Angeles (Clippers).

Following the all-star break (Feb. 14-18), the schedule includes games at Cleveland, New Orleans, Houston and Chicago. After tomorrow's game against the Spurs, the Wizards won't play at Verizon Center until Feb. 19, when the Knicks come to town.

The seriousness of the situation is not lost on the players, several of whom talked about the need to get back to playing the kind of cohesive, aggressive basketball the team played while going 8-3 between Jan. 4 and Jan. 25.

"We're not playing real good basketball right now but the key is that we can't allow this to turn into a long losing streak or a real bad stretch where we dig ourselves into a hole," said guard DeShawn Stevenson, who was limited by early foul trouble Sunday and has totaled eight points in the past two games. "It's important that we get back to playing the way we were defensively because that has been the thing keeping us in games all season."

The team suffered a setback recently when Butler, an all-star forward, missed three games with a strained left hip flexor. Butler returned Sunday and scored 15 points, but that hardly mattered on a day when the Lakers became only the latest Washington opponent to have its way offensively.

Inspired defense and timely shot making were key ingredients to consecutive wins over Boston and a win over Dallas, but those traits were either missing or not in nearly enough supply during losses to Cleveland, Toronto, Utah and the Lakers.

The Cavaliers shot 56.6 percent in their 121-85 win on Jan. 23 and the Raptors did the same in a 122-83 win last week. Utah racked up 32 assists and had five players score in double figures on Friday night while the Lakers shot 56.2 percent and totaled 27 assists on Sunday.

"We have to get back to work and do the things that we did when we were successful," said Jamison, an all-star forward. "Defensively, we need to get better and that's been a disappointment the last couple of games. We need to defend the basket and contain the paint."

One trait the Wizards have displayed all season is the ability to bounce back. The team won six straight after an 0-5 start to the season, has played mostly competitive basketball without three-time all-star guard Gilbert Arenas, who hasn't played since Nov. 16 and doesn't expect to return to game action until some point after the all-star break. The squad earned respect throughout the league with a gritty come-from-behind 88-83 win at Boston on Jan. 14.

The last time the Wizards lost three straight -- to Chicago, Atlanta and Indiana between Dec. 19 and Dec. 22 -- they bounced back to win four of the next six.

"The main message was for us to stay together," guard Roger Mason Jr., said of the mood at yesterday's practice. "That's been our thing all year, rallying and playing team ball. We need to get back to that."

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