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Playoff Fate for Injury-Riddled Wizards Still a Mystery

Banged-Up Washington, the East's No. 5 Team, Coud End Up 8th -- or Fourth

Antawn Jamison has missed two straight games with a right shoulder sprain.
Antawn Jamison has missed two straight games with a right shoulder sprain. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 7, 2008; Page E09

The Washington Wizards have been drawing a crowd -- scouts representing a handful of potential first-round playoff opponents including the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Orlando Magic and the Detroit Pistons.

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Those scouts are working overtime because like everyone else, including the Wizards, they have no idea where Washington will be seeded when the playoffs begin in two weeks.

With five games left in the regular season, the Wizards (40-37) are in sole possession of fifth place in the Eastern Conference, one game ahead of sixth-place Philadelphia. However, they are only two games behind fourth-place Cleveland and could grab home-court advantage in the first round if they can move past the Cavaliers. A weak finish could drop the Wizards as far as seventh or eighth, setting up a brutal first-round matchup with the Pistons or the Boston Celtics.

As if that weren't enough intrigue, all-star forward Antawn Jamison has missed two straight games with a sprained right shoulder and guard Gilbert Arenas is trying to get his rhythm back after missing 66 games because of a left knee injury.

Jamison and Arenas missed Saturday's 99-87 win at Chicago, but both are expected to play against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night at Verizon Center.

Jamison, Arenas and Caron Butler have played only nine games together all season, so Butler believes that reestablishing chemistry and staying healthy will be almost as important as winning over the last five regular season games.

"Antawn is playing great, but Gilbert is out and then I get hurt," said Butler, who missed 19 games with a left hip injury and another with a hamstring problem. "Then I get back and Gilbert comes back and Antawn gets hurt. It's like we just can't keep all three guys out there at the same time. Come playoff time, we will all be healthy and playing together."

Almost as soon as he spoke, Butler paused as if fearing that he'd just jinxed his team.

"Hopefully," Butler said. "Hopefully, we're all healthy."

The wild card in the situation is Arenas, who scored 17 points in his return on Wednesday -- a loss to Milwaukee -- and had 13 points, eight assists and one turnover in a win over Miami on Friday.

Arenas made the trip to Chicago for Saturday's game, but after consulting with the team's athletic trainers for about two hours before tip-off, the decision was made to have him sit out to rest his knee. The coaching staff is under strict orders to play Arenas no more than 20 to 25 minutes per game, and the medical staff has advised Arenas to be cautious with back-to-back games.

The team has another back-to-back set this weekend with games at Detroit on Friday night and at home against Philadelphia on Saturday night, and it's likely that Arenas could miss one of those games as well for precautionary reasons.

Butler agreed with the decision to have Arenas sit out Saturday night even though every game is critical to playoff seeding.

"If it was me, I would have done the same thing," Butler said. "I thought it was very smart of him and the training staff and upstairs [the front office] advising him that it would be a good thing not to play the back-to-backs. He followed their advice and it ended up working out for us because we got the win and he got the rest."

The Wizards hardly are alone in closely following Arenas's progress. Scouts assigned to the Wizards are watching him closely, trying to gauge how he's performing and how Coach Eddie Jordan is using him.

Potential playoff opponents, like Cleveland's LeBron James, are keeping tabs as well. There is a strong chance that the Wizards and Cavaliers, who have lost two straight at home, will meet in the first round for the third straight season.

"When you add an all-star like Gilbert to your roster this late in the season, it can only help," James told the Akron Beacon Journal. "We've played them with Gilbert, we've played them without Gilbert, so it doesn't matter for us. We know that we need to get better, otherwise it won't matter."

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