- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2007

CHARLOTTE — Even before the Washington Wizards announced yesterday Caron Butler would miss at least six weeks with a broken hand, team captain Antawn Jamison issued a warning to those predicting another early playoff exit.

“I’ll tell you one thing, there are a lot of teams that don’t want to see us in the playoffs,” Jamison said. “So, you know, the naysayers can write us off and say we are done, or we don’t have a chance to contend. But seven games against this team — I’m not worried. We’re going to fight hard; we’re going to fight to the end.”

The end, at least of the regular season, is just two weeks and 10 games away. But without Butler, who fractured the second metacarpal in his right hand against Milwaukee on Sunday, the Wizards’ chances at a deep playoff run aren’t promising.

The Wizards are just 2-7 without Butler this season. He is having a career year, posting career highs in points (19.1), rebounds (7.4) and assists (3.7). He is second in the NBA in steals (2.13), trailing Ron Artest.

The Wizards (39-33) will struggle to replace those numbers. Despite Jamison’s optimism, the Wizards have yet to show true chemistry without one of their top three players — Jamison, Butler and Gilbert Arenas — in the lineup.

The Wizards, who play the first of back-to-back games with Charlotte tonight, will start Jarvis Hayes and might juggle the starting lineup the rest of the season depending on matchups.

Hayes has played well lately, but he has done so coming off the bench, where he, Antonio Daniels and Darius Songaila had finally started to click. In the Wizards’ win over Milwaukee, the bench produced a season-high 53 points. Hayes’ departure from the bench will likely hurt that unit’s effectiveness.

In seven games as a starter this season, Hayes is averaging 9.1 points and 4.9 rebounds.

“We’re going to have to ban together and pick up the slack now,” Hayes said.

Wizards coach Eddie Jordan pointed to other teams that have stayed in the playoff race despite injuries to top players, such as Miami (Dwyane Wade) and the Los Angeles Lakers (Lamar Odom). But those players suffered injuries with enough time remaining in the season. Wade returned to practice yesterday after undergoing shoulder surgery.

“Everybody in the league has had some devastating injuries. You can just go down the list,” Jordan said. “But we’ve got a capable bench. If we can collectively do things at a high level, then I think we can win our share of games and move on to the playoffs.

“But it’s going to be tougher, no doubt about it,” Jordan continued. “You lose a guy like that it’s just not the numbers. He gives us toughness and when you have that it gets contagious. When you walk down a dark alley and you’ve got a tough guy with you, you feel tough, too.”

The Wizards haven’t locked up a playoff spot just yet, but it seems highly unlikely any of the teams in the bottom two spots (New Jersey at 34-39 and Orlando at 34-40) will catch the fourth-seeded Wizards.

But the Wizards don’t want to slip out of that fourth seed and lose homecourt advantage. The Wizards are 26-10 at Verizon Center this season but just 13-23 away from it.