Wizards Embark On Vital Road Trip

Every Game Crucial for Playoff Seed

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008; Page E08

Several members of the Washington Wizards were still in the locker room soaking in the team's 110-95 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Saturday night when equipment manager Rob Suller began making his rounds, packing shoes and other items for a three-game road trip that begins tonight in New Orleans against the Hornets (37-17).

The trip continues tomorrow night with a game in Houston against the Rockets, winners of 12 straight. The trip finishes in Chicago on Friday night against a Bulls team that recently acquired former Wizards guard Larry Hughes as well as forward Drew Gooden in a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Wizards finished 1-4 on a recent trip out West, and are 10-17 on the road this season.

"We know it doesn't get any easier from here," said shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson, who made three three-pointers in the final eight minutes Saturday night to help ice a much-needed win. "We are going to see two of the best teams in the league right away so we know that we need to bring the momentum we picked up [Saturday night] and carry that with us."

The Wizards (26-29) are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, 1 1/2 games ahead of seventh-place New Jersey, and players understand that every game is critical to securing a decent playoff seed.

The sense of urgency is even greater considering that the team does not know when it will have two-time all-star forward Caron Butler and three-time all-star guard Gilbert Arenas back in the lineup.

Butler has missed eight straight and 11 of the last 13 games with a strained left hip flexor. Coach Eddie Jordan wants Butler to back off of the rehabilitation process and allow the hip to heal before trying to practice again. Butler did not leave Washington with the team Sunday night, but has only been offically ruled out of the team's first game.

Arenas (left knee) had tentatively set Sunday's home game against the Hornets as a possible date for his return, but backed off prior to Saturday's game and said he does not know when he will be cleared for a full-contact practice or when he will try to play in a game.

"I just have to wait and see," said Arenas, who has not played since Nov. 16. "Right now, it's just about getting back into shape so that when I do go out there, I can help the team."

According to center Brendan Haywood, who turned in one of his most complete performances of the season Saturday night with 15 points, 7 rebounds, a career-high 5 assists and 3 blocks, the Wizards have to keep grinding out games and hold on until help arrives.

"Our stretch hasn't been that great but at the same time, the team's spirits are up because we know that we have a lot of guys out," Haywood said. "It's not like we have our whole team healthy and we are just losing night in, night out and we don't know where to look for answers. At the end of the day, we know that when we get Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas back, we are one of the top five teams in the East so we're not worried about anything. Right now, it's about trying to hold down the fort."

The Hornets are 18-9 at home this season and have one of the game's young stars in point guard Chris Paul as well as first-time all-star forward David West.

They have lost two straight since a 104-93 home victory over Dallas on Wednesday night. The two losses came to the defending champion Spurs (98-89 Saturday night in San Antonio) and to Houston (100-80 on Friday night in New Orleans).

To understand just how competitive the playoff race in the Western Conference is, consider that the consecutive losses dropped the Hornets from first in conference winning percentage to fifth briefly.

Only five games separate the top nine teams in the West, so for the Hornets and other conference teams, every game is crucial. The Wizards have lost 10 straight road games to the Hornets, and the last win came when the franchise played in Charlotte.

"We know that it's going to be a challenge," forward Antawn Jamison said. "Chris Paul, he's playing as well as anyone in the league, David West is a guy not a lot of people know about but I saw him down there for the All-Star Game and he can play; and then they have a solid group of veterans who play well together. So, we're going to have to play very well and find a way to execute down the stretch like we did [Saturday night]. It would be great to start this trip on a positive note."

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