There wasn't much beauty to behold during the Washington Wizards' 75-71 loss to the Houston Rockets on Sunday night. The Wizards were nearing the end of a lengthy road trip and played without all-stars Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, while the Rockets, who are coached by Pat Riley disciple Jeff Van Gundy, played their typical grind-it-out, defensive style.
At times, the Toyota Center crowd of 10,845 seemed more interested in getting updates of the Astros-White Sox World Series game than in watching basketball.
Still, some flavor was provided by newcomers Chucky Atkins and Caron Butler, who kept the Wizards close by combining to score 41 points. Butler was particularly sharp, scoring a preseason-high 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting with four rebounds and three steals in 36 minutes. More importantly, Butler played with an overall rhythm and flow that suggested he's finding a comfort zone in Coach Eddie Jordan's offense.
Butler, who has played in six preseason games after missing the opener against Cleveland with a groin injury, was assertive on the offensive end, active defensively and looked particularly aggressive in transition. In one third-quarter sequence, Butler poked the ball free on defense, took off down the wing and finished the play by taking a pass from Antonio Daniels and converting a layup while being fouled by Tracy McGrady at the rim.
The performance earned praise from Jamison, who sees his new teammate finding a groove.
"It's all about getting comfortable in a new situation," said Jamison, who sat out with a shoulder bruise. "Tonight, he was just flowing, playing basketball. Sometimes, because you're trying to learn a new system, you can do too much thinking instead of just reacting and playing naturally. Tonight, I thought both Caron and Chucky just went out and played their games."
Butler, who is averaging 12.2 points, 5 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game, has primarily played at small forward after splitting time between that position and shooting guard with the Los Angeles Lakers last season. Sunday's game provided a glimpse of the kind of scoring options Butler can expect to see in Jordan's system. He took advantage of some post-up opportunities, he worked the baseline to get open for high-percentage midrange jump shots and he got out on the wings in transition, where his combination of size, strength and balance often allow him to finish plays even when receiving hard contact.
Butler, now on his third team in four NBA seasons, has taken a gradual approach to breaking in with the Wizards, something he said he learned while playing under Jim Calhoun at the University of Connecticut and under Riley's Miami Heat team as a rookie.
"Those guys taught me that when you're new, it's best to pick and choose your spots and kind of observe everything before just jumping right in trying to do too much," Butler said. "I didn't want to go out there trying to score 30 points a game or anything like that. I had to learn to crawl before I walked, but it's starting to come around at the right time. Guys are starting to understand one another a little better and the more we play together, the more comfortable we all will be."
Jordan was pleased to see Butler finding a balance between aggressiveness and control. His offense is predicated on quick ball movement and sharp cuts, so Jordan doesn't want to see players dribbling the pebbles out of the basketball while contemplating a move. And he can't abide turnovers prompted by indecisiveness in the half-court set.
"I like the way [Butler] is learning the plays and I thought he did a good job of helping his teammates tonight by making the extra pass," Jordan said. "With Gil and Antawn out, he and Chucky needed to be aggressive as far as scoring the basketball and they did that, so those were some positive signs."
Wizards Notes: The game was rebroadcast on a Houston area television station late Sunday night. Wizards forward Hiram Fuller should get a tape because he'd hear Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, now a Rockets analyst, throwing some serious love his way. Fuller, who is competing to make the team's 15-man roster after a brief appearance with the Atlanta Hawks last season, finished with four points on 2-of-6 shooting, grabbed 10 rebounds and had one monster block on a Rafer Alston shot during 19 minutes of play. That was enough to earn heavy praise from Drexler.
"I really like the energy this Fuller kid plays with," Drexler said at one point during the second half. "He's showing me something tonight." . . . .
Jordan gave the team a day off yesterday, only the second off day since training camp opened in Richmond on Oct. 4. The team will practice at MCI Center this week before closing the preseason Friday night at Indiana. Arenas (eye abrasion) and Jamison are expected to return to practice this week and play Friday night.