The Washington Post

With Trevor Ariza set to go, Wizards ready for critical game against Charlotte

We’re back at it again. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

CHARLOTTE – Trevor Ariza will give it a go Monday after injuring his groin in the third quarter of Saturday’s 101-97 victory over the Atlanta Hawks. Ariza was unsure about his availability for a critical game against the Charlotte Bobcats, but he was able to participate in the morning shootaround after getting around-the-clock treatment a day earlier.

Coupled with Friday’s victory over Indiana, the Wizards got some separation over the weekend on the Bobcats, who have been idle since losing Friday in overtime in Orlando. The sixth-place Wizards have a three-game lead in the standings with nine games remaining. A win could clinch a playoff berth and go a long way in helping the Wizards avoid a first-round matchup with either Indiana or Miami.

“We knew these two games at home was big for us, and the game on Monday is even bigger against Charlotte, that’s coming to try to get our sixth spot,” John Wall said. “Got to finish it out and try to win the last nine games that we have.”

The final two games of the Wizards-Bobcats will be the most important in the history of the series between the Southeast Division rivals.

Though they have benefited from playing in the putrid Eastern Conference, both organizations have made rapid turnarounds. Just two years ago, the Bobcats set the record for the worst winning percentage in NBA history, claiming just seven victories in the 66-game lockout-shortened season, while the Wizards finished with the league’s second-worst record.

Seventh-place Charlotte is closing in on the franchise’s second playoff appearance since joining the NBA as an expansion team in 2004 – and last before switching nicknames to the Hornets next season. With a magic number of one, Washington is poised to make the playoffs for the first time in six years.

The Wizards and Bobcats have split the first two games this season, with each team winning on the road.

“It’s important, because they’re right on us and they’re playing well. They given us trouble,” Ariza said. “So we got to go in there and try to get an early lead and try to take their heart from them early.”

Bobcats forward Al Jefferson has been the barometer for each game, with his 26-point effort leading Charlotte to a 98-85 win at Verizon Center. Jefferson has continued to roll since that game, averaging 22.9 points and 11 rebounds in his past eight games. After scoring 35 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in a win over Brooklyn, Jefferson’s former teammate Paul Piece said, “No one on the planet can guard him.”

Marcin Gortat has had some success containing Jefferson in the past and limited him to a season-low six points on 3 of 9 shooting in the Wizards’ 97-83 win Jan. 7 at Time Warner Cable Arena.

“I’m definitely going to get ready for this game. it’s going to be a huge challenge for me. I stopped this guy one time already, over there in Charlotte and I want to do this again,” Gortat said. “I will have to bring it. I will have to bring it and be ready to play. He’s a great big.”

But just as the Wizards were able to shut down all-star Paul George by committee on Friday, when they limited him to 6 for 22 shooting, Washington plans on giving Gortat some assistance down low.

“Al Jefferson is huge for them. I don’t think one person can really guard him. We have to help Marc stop him,” Ariza said. “That’s a tall task. We just have to all be on the same page.”

Wall collected a fine for directing inappropriate comments toward officials after the Wizards lost at home to Charlotte three weeks ago, upset over a game-altering foul of Kemba Walker that resulted in a technical foul on Coach Randy Wittman and the Bobcats scoring four points off free throws.

Stopping Jefferson alone won’t be enough to get another win over Charlotte, Wall said. “He’s a load down there. Kemba Walker is a load, Gerald Henderson is a load. Different games, different guys score big against us. they won one and we won one. It’s tough to play anybody one-on-one. We know that. We just got to play the right way. We got to do a better job of helping Marc out and containing the other guys down the stretch.”

Aside from Ariza, the Wizards witness another encouraging development now that Nene has started traveling with the team. Nene has missed the past 17 games since spraining his left knee on Feb. 23 in Cleveland but was working on agility drills with trainers while his teammates went through shootaround, signaling that his return could be close behind.

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.



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Michael Lee · March 30, 2014