‘Tough Juice’ hits the spot

Caron Butler returned to the lineup last night, and all was right with the Wizards again on Fun Street.

Or as right as right can be on a team with inconsistent post players and a defense that sometimes reduces the coaching staff to tears.

It was a late-season game that meant everything to the Wizards and was merely a postseason tune-up to the Cavaliers. It was a game that finally secured a playoff berth for the Wizards after they lost all five of the games that Butler missed because of a badly sprained right thumb.

It was Butler who injected this mostly finesse team with a much-needed dose of grit and passion, as the Wizards defeated the Cavaliers 104-92 and beat back all the doubts that have enveloped them the last 10 days.

After Butler hit a 3-pointer to push the Wizards’ advantage to 26 points just before the buzzer sounded to end the third quarter, Cavaliers coach Mike Brown took that as a cue to rest his lead trio of LeBron James, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Larry Hughes the rest of the way.

Even as the Cavaliers made a predictable run in the fourth quarter, closing to nine points on three occasions, Brown refused to be seduced by a regular season game whose outcome could not change the team’s No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Near the end of the first half, after Ilgauskas delivered a good whack to Gilbert Arenas, Butler walked over to the Lithuanian to let him know that his inhospitable actions had been duly noted.

Butler made his point with a bump and a series of firm words.

This tiny exchange tells you much of what Butler contributes to the team beyond the statistics, impressive though they are.

“Ilgauskas is a good dude, but that was a hard foul,” Butler said. “You have to make statements on things like that, because there is a good chance we’ll be seeing them down the road.”

Butler finished with 21 points, eight rebounds, four steals, a good number of hard-nosed plays atypical of the Wizards and one behavioral correction with Ilgauskas.

His was the kind of performance that eliminated the dread in Wizards coach Eddie Jordan.

Jordan spent the day with his youngest son Jackson in an effort to defuse the growing stress. A five-game losing streak was wearing on him and the coaching staff. His team was running out of chances, their playoff T-shirts on hold since last Monday in Philadelphia.

Jordan was hoping against hope that Butler’s thumb would be able to hold up to the contact.

“That first catch, that first dribble, we wanted to see if he could withstand the pain,” Jordan said.

Butler missed his first two shot attempts before sinking a 20-footer with 9:11 left in the first quarter. You almost could hear a collective sigh of relief from the Wizards bench.

“Caron, obviously, was big for us,” Jordan said. “We kind of rallied around his toughness.”

It is that toughness that led Jordan to coin the nickname “Tough Juice” with Butler.

“I saw the first week in training camp what Caron would mean to this team,” Jordan said.

Butler spent the last week squirming on the bench, pleading with the team’s doctors and trainers to let him attempt to play.

“It was very hard to sit out while we were losing,” Butler said.

And the pull on Butler only mounted as the Wizards lost winnable games in Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Chicago.

Yet, given the go-ahead to play against the Cavaliers, Butler was uncertain how the thumb would respond. He just knew he didn’t want to play with a taped thumb. The tape, he said, would encourage opponents to go after it.

“I started to feel like I was in a rhythm after I hit the 3-pointer,” Butler said.

By then, the outcome was decided and the Wizards were en route to their second consecutive playoff appearance.

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