- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2006

With the team mired in its third three-game losing streak in a month, the Washington Wizards have started pointing fingers at management and teammates.

Heading into tonight’s game against the New York Knicks (8-21) — with more than a third of the season completed — the Wizards (12-17), in the words of leading scorer Gilbert Arenas, “have some soul searching” to do.

That’s because the Wizards have lost three consecutive home games since beating the Lakers on the day after Christmas. After giving up 128 points to the Miami Heat in their last game of 2005, coach Eddie Jordan told the team to get over it and focus on a five-game stretch against opponents ripe for defeat: Houston (the lowest scoring team in the league, playing without All-Star center Yao Ming), the mess that is Larry Brown’s Knicks, Boston, Utah and Atlanta.

But rather than take advantage of the offensively challenged Rockets at MCI Center on Tuesday, the Wizards produced one of their most pathetic showings of the season.

Houston demolished the Wizards 123-111, leading by as many as 26 points. It was enough of a cushion to render Washington’s 41-point fourth quarter in the loss — its third straight — meaningless.

In the wake of that defeat players openly questioned the toughness of the team, and some bemoaned the loss of players via free agency.

“I don’t think anyone has quit,” said center Brendan Haywood, who scored two points in the loss to Houston. “But if you haven’t noticed, this isn’t the team that we had last year. And because of that we are trying to find our way. You can’t just take away important pieces and try to get around that and we haven’t recovered from the losses we had last season.”

Haywood said the team particularly misses guard Larry Hughes, who signed a five-year deal with Cleveland worth more than $65 million. Hughes, a first-team all-defensive selection last season, will miss the next six to eight weeks with a broken finger.

“How could you anticipate it not hurting us?” Haywood asked. “He’s a guy who averaged [22] points, led the league in steals [2.89] and pulled down [6.3] rebounds. That is going to sting somewhere along the line. Juan Dixon, too. We have a totally different team this year and we’re trying to get back to where we were last year. And right now we’re not there.”

The Wizards acquisition of Caron Butler for Kwame Brown looks like a good move. But the Wizards have gotten little from free-agent guard Antonio Daniels, whom they signed for five years at $30 million. Daniels is averaging just 5.1 points and shooting 34 percent from the field.

But Washington’s problems this season — just as they were last season when they made the playoffs for the first time since 1997 — are on the defensive end of the floor. Opponents are shooting the same percentage this season (.459) but Washington is allowing more points a game (101.8) than it did in 2004-05.

“If I was our opponent, I would look at our team and say, ‘I’m going to attack that middle,’ ” Arenas said. “No one is going to take a charge. We have some players who will throw their bodies on the line and some players who won’t.”

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