- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2006

Twenty-eight games into the regular season, the Washington Wizards find themselves tied for first place in the Eastern Conference’s Southeast Division with the Orlando Magic.

A win over Orlando (17-13), which visits Verizon Center tonight, would put the Wizards (16-12) alone at the top. While the players don’t consider that remarkable, the lead would be significant to those who follow the Wizards, winners of 12 of their last 15 games.

The Wizards last led their division 27 seasons ago when then-coach Dick Motta guided the Bullets to a 54-28 record in the Atlantic Division.

Both the 5-9 start to this season and the franchise-worst 0-8 road start seem like distant memories thanks to an 11-3 record in December and six wins in the last seven road games. Opposing teams are aware the Wizards have snapped 12- (Dallas) and 15-game (Phoenix) winning streaks. And fans around the country are aware of Gilbert Arenas, who broke Earl Monroe’s 38-year old franchise single-game scoring record when he dropped 60 on the Lakers, then five days later scored 54 in a win over the Suns.

But while the hype grows, the Wizards appear unfazed. They know they are improving, but they also know they must continue to do so.

“We’re not worried about getting first, second or third place. We’re worried about just getting better and getting quality wins and winning the games we’re supposed to win,” said Arenas, who with an average of 30.5 points a game is tied with Denver’s Allen Iverson for second in the league in scoring.

That wasn’t the case earlier in the season, when the Wizards went without a road win in the first six weeks.

However, in a 13-day span that saw the Wizards lose at Memphis, win at home against the Mavericks and finally win on the road at New York, Washington began a transformation that has them improving every time they take the court.

“It says a lot about where we’ve been, but it also says a whole lot about where we’re going,” said Caron Butler, who’s averaging 20.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and making a case for the Eastern Conference All-Star team.

The Memphis loss sparked conversation in the locker room between the players, who wanted to run more, and coach Eddie Jordan, who wanted his team to stop arguing with referees and play defense.

With the win over the Mavericks, the Wizards proved to themselves they could beat an elite team. The win at New York avenged a 20-point loss and, more importantly, ignited confidence away from Verizon Center.

“We weren’t looking at anybody. We weren’t looking at Orlando. We weren’t looking at Miami. We weren’t looking at the Bobcats,” Jordan said. “We were only looking at the Wizards and how to get better, and that’s what we’ll do tomorrow.”

And while their defense still needs work, opposing teams now must be concerned with stopping an offense that over the last month has been as formidable as any in the league. In their last 12 games, Washington has averaged 118.5 points a game.

“We feel like we are one of the better teams in this league, and we are getting the opportunity to prove it,” Butler said. “We’ve got to keep going out there and doing what we do best, getting out in transition, executing our offense and doing our thing.”

Despite the team’s current success, Antawn Jamison believes the Wizards have work to do. Washington is allowing a league-high 106 points a game.

“Defensively we’ve still got to patch some things up before you can really feel comfortable about where we are,” Jamison said. “But offensively we are scoring the ball at will and doing the things we like to do. We are clicking on all cylinders and scoring the ball at will.”

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