- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — The Washington Wizards finished their unpredictable regular season in appropriate fashion last night, completing a sweep of the season series against the league’s best team to secure the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Wizards got just what they needed from the Detroit Pistons — a perfunctory performance that allowed Washington to blow them away in the fourth quarter en route to a 96-80 win at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

The Wizards now face the Cleveland Cavaliers, against whom they went 3-1 this season, in the first round of the playoffs. Game 1 of the best-of-7 series will be Saturday afternoon.

The win kept the Wizards from falling to the sixth or seventh spot and a potential first-round meeting with Miami or New Jersey.

With the Pistons’ best players sitting out all of the fourth quarter, the Wizards hit the tape hard. Their regulars played with initiative and purpose to make sure the Pistons never were able to mount a challenge.

Caron Butler led the Wizards (42-40) with 33 points and 12 rebounds and appeared nearly recovered from the sprained thumb that sidelined him for five late-season games, all of them losses.

“Caron is as tough as they come,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “It was his will and determination that won the game for us. He forced his will upon the game, and other guys really stepped up.”

The Wizards also got 21 points and nine rebounds from Antawn Jamison. Gilbert Arenas finished with 18 points and seven assists.

No Detroit starter scored in double figures. Carlos Delfino came off the bench to lead the Pistons (64-18) with 17 points. The Pistons fell to 37-4 at home with two of those losses against Washington.

Still, Jordan, knowing his team likely had to win to secure the first-round meeting with the Cavaliers, was not happy when the Pistons were down by just six points at the start of the fourth quarter.

“We didn’t want it to be a game,” Jordan said. “After a timeout, I said, ‘Look, guys. Don’t allow them to make this a game.’ ”

And they didn’t, much to Jordan’s relief. Butler scored 11 more points in the quarter as the Wizards turned what had been a six-point lead into a comfortable 93-73 advantage with 3:16 to play.

“Coach had us so amped up to go out here and handle our business, and nothing else mattered,” Butler said. “We knew that if we won all of the scenarios — like if a penny fell out of the sky, whatever — it wouldn’t matter. So we just went out there, and we won.”

The Wizards clinched a playoff berth Sunday when they defeated the Cavaliers 104-92 to end a harrowing five-game losing streak that imperiled their chances of reaching the playoffs at all.

That skid, of course, coincided with Butler’s absence. Before he went down, Butler and the Wizards had been playing at their highest level of the season. They had won nine of 14 before his injury.

They played 12 of their final 16 on the road and won eight of those games. And had Butler not gone down from April 7 to 14, they likely could have finished the season on a stronger note.

“I like this team and the way we’re playing right now,” Jamison said. “We had some ups and downs, but we played through it all. We had some new faces that we had to work in and get comfortable, and now we’ve got good chemistry. We’re ready for the playoffs. Now it gets fun.”

The Wizards’ sweep of the Pistons was the first time they have accomplished it since they went 7-0 against Detroit during the 1968-69 season.

Washington stunned the Pistons in their first meeting here when they used 39 points from Arenas, 27 from Butler and 20 from former Wizard Chucky Atkins in a 120-114 double-overtime victory.

The Wizards knocked the Pistons down a notch again when they met last month at Verizon Center as Arenas poured in 34 and Butler added 30 in an easy 110-92 victory March 11.

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