Thomas returns to action

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With Etan Thomas out for the last 13 games with a sprained ankle, Brendan Haywood, who was unseated by Thomas as the Washington Wizards’ starting center at the beginning of the season, stepped up his game considerably.

Thomas, who hasn’t played since Dec. 9, is scheduled to return to the lineup tonight when the Wizards (19-13) play host to the Chicago Bulls (20-14). Coach Eddie Jordan said yesterday he will work Thomas in gradually, most likely as a sub. But it will be interesting over the next few weeks to see whether he inserts Thomas back into the starting lineup.

With Thomas in the starting lineup, the Wizards are 9-11. He has averaged 7.1 points on 60.2 percent shooting, has pulled down 6.1 rebounds in 21.4 minutes and leads the team with 1.8 blocks a game.

Meanwhile, the Wizards have gone 10-3 with Haywood in the lineup. In that stretch, Haywood has averaged 9.1 points on 65.7 percent shooting and has grabbed 8.8 rebounds in 30.1 minutes.

Clearly, Haywood has made the most of the situation, and the Wizards have been good with him starting. But Jordan won’t tip his hand regarding which player will get the long-term nod.

“There is always competition there,” Jordan said. “If there is a dropoff or if one guy raises his level of play, then that’s the direction we’re going to go. If one goes up and once goes down, that’s where we’ll go.

“I’m very happy with the center possibilities with Etan healthy,” Jordan continued. “I like the fact that one is different than the other. They both push each other harder. I believe, and they might not believe it, that they both need each other to play at the highest level.”

When Thomas won the starting job, Haywood’s agent, Andy Miller, felt the choice had little to do with basketball reasons. And later, for the second time in as many seasons, Haywood and Thomas were involved in a physical confrontation.

Haywood contended yesterday he is better suited in the starter’s role. However, he said the choice will belong to Jordan and he will accept whatever decision is made.

“Hopefully, I proved that when given 30 minutes I can be very good for this team and help this team win,” Haywood added. “I think the formula has worked, but if they don’t want to stick with that I can respect that.”

Jordan said the once-strained relationship between himself and Haywood has improved.

“The coach-player relationship is a whole lot better, and that makes life easier for both of us,” Jordan said. “We know there are no separate agendas between the two of us as long as we understand that we are going in the right direction. I think that’s part of the reason why he’s playing well.”

After two full days of practice, Thomas obviously is happy to return to the court.

“It will be great to get back on the court and see what I can do during the game,” Thomas said. “Sometimes it is kind of hard to sit out with an injury. The team has been playing well, and I have definitely been rooting them on. It is good to be back out there.”

Note — The first 150 fans who bring a new coat will get to meet and greet Wizards forward Caron Butler after the game. All fans donating a coat will receive a coupon for a free ticket to an upcoming game. All coats collected will be distributed to metropolitan shelters and group homes through the Salvation Army and area schools.

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