In the End, Suns Are Too Strong

Wizards Hang Close, Then Can't Muscle Past Phoenix: Suns 103, Wizards 87

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 27, 2009; Page E01

The chances that Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler will make return trips to the all-star game are worse than the Washington Wizards' record. But the day before coaches around the league submit their ballots for the seven reserves in each conference, Jamison and Butler made their final, if futile, pitches before 17,344 fans at Verizon Center. Jamison and Butler combined to score 55 points, taking turns carrying the offensive load, but the Wizards were unable to find at least a third party to tag along, as they lost to the Phoenix Suns, 103-87. The loss, combined with the Oklahoma City Thunder's win against New Jersey, meant that the Wizards (9-35) were alone in the league's cellar for the first time since starting the season 0-6.

"It doesn't do anything to be negative or come in with your head down. You can say we're not a 9-35 team, but we're 9-35," Jamison said after scoring 27 points with a team-high 13 rebounds. "As long as I can look myself in the mirror and I stay positive and I gave it 110 percent and I didn't tank it in, I can live with that."

Jamison and Butler may also have to live with the possibility that the closest either player will get to Phoenix -- where the all-star game will be played on Feb. 15 -- likely came last night while looking at the jersey of their opponents.

The Wizards hung with the Suns through the first three quarters, trailing 75-73 entering the final period. But the Suns pulled away at the start of the fourth, when reserve guard Leandro Barbosa scored 10 of his 23 points during a decisive 12-6 run that essentially knocked out the Wizards. The final and most painful blow came with 4 minutes 11 seconds remaining when center Andray Blatche (12 points, six rebounds) hopped off the floor after colliding with Suns center Shaquille O'Neal.

O'Neal scored a game-high 29 points with eight rebounds, punctuating his night when he spun around rookie JaVale McGee and dunked to give Phoenix a 97-85 lead with 1:53 remaining. O'Neal then glared at the remaining fans in the arena, signaling to them that it was time to go home. Barbosa finished with 23 points, Amare Stoudemire had 22 points and 15 rebounds and Steve Nash chipped in with 14 points and 15 assists.

"We didn't have enough scoring. It is imperative that we find a third guy to give us consistent scoring. I can't ask Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison to do any more than they do," Wizards interim coach Ed Tapscott said. With Phoenix, "you stop them or you score with them. We did neither."

The Wizards returned home from 1-3 West Coast trip early Sunday morning and took the day off, only to get one of the league's highest scoring teams a day later.

More than half of the Wizards' wins have come against Western Conference teams this season, and the Suns (25-18) arrived in Washington at the conclusion of a six-game road trip and defeated the Hawks in Atlanta on Sunday.

O'Neal, usually sits out the second of back-to-back games. But Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas, the Wizards' most seasoned centers, were seated on the bench in street clothes, leaving Blatche, Darius Songaila and McGee to contend with the 7-foot, 300-plus pound center who has experienced a rebirth in Phoenix. O'Neal punished the Wizards on both ends of the floor. He made 10 of 14 field goals, mostly on layups and dunks, and was surprisingly proficient from the foul line, where he made 9 of 10. He also blocked three shots and delivered punishing blows to almost every player who dared to step inside the paint.

McGee tried to drive baseline around O'Neal in the second quarter and bumped into O'Neal's right thigh. McGee stumbled and grimaced in pain, while his mother, Pam, shot up from her seat showing concern as he limped to the bench. "It was trying to go by and it didn't work out," McGee said with a shrug. "He's a force. At least 350, 360 [pounds]."

At least McGee was able to return. Late in the fourth, Blatche tried to dribble around O'Neal along the left baseline. O'Neal appeared to kick Blatche, then Blatche bumped knees with O'Neal and crashed to the floor, writhing in pain. After laying on the floor for several minutes, Blatche hopped back toward the tunnel on one leg. Blatche said he will attempt to practice on Tuesday, but the team will list him as day-to-day with a strained left knee. "That was the scariest thing ever. I thought it was something serious," Blatche said. "I felt a pop, but it should be fine. All I know is [O'Neal] hit me and I went flying."

O'Neal was kinder to Butler. When Butler tried to drive baseline in the first quarter, O'Neal reached in for the ball and wound up wrapping up Butler and forcing a jump ball. Before letting Butler go, O'Neal kissed him on the head. "It was funny," Butler, who finished with 28 points, said with a laugh afterward. "I love Shaq."

Butler may not get much love from the coaches when the all-star reserves are announced on Thursday, but he still believes he should be in Phoenix. "If you're going to reward from a team standpoint, I'll fall back and watch it on the television from Disney World or something," Butler said. "I know I'm an all-star. I did it back-to-back. Hopefully it happens again. If not, I'll take it on the chin and watch out next year."

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