Butler’s breakout

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The moment belonged to someone other than Gilbert Arenas for a change. It belonged to Caron Butler, who seized it by the lapels, both on and off the court.

Resplendent in a tailored dark suit, pink sweater and stocking cap, the Wizards forward known as “Tough Juice” basked in the attention Wednesday night. He stood in the locker room at Verizon Center facing a bank of TV cameras and microphones, flashing a smile that sparkled like the marble-sized blue diamond in his left earlobe.

The 6-foot-7 Butler, who is forever champing plastic straws wadded up like gum, had just chewed up the New York Knicks. He played all 48 minutes for the first time ever. He scored 27 points, dished a career-high 10 assists and made the winning shot — a dunk off a pass from DeShawn Stevenson with 2.2 seconds left.

After blowing a 14-point third quarter lead, the Wizards pulled out a 99-98 victory to avoid an aggravating home loss to an inferior opponent.

Dramatic finishes and big games this year have been the near-exclusive domain of Arenas, the Wizards’ All-Star guard and league MVP candidate. But with the Knicks throwing double-teams at Arenas all night, others had to step up. Others did, but none more than Butler, whose all-around game and intensity have generated his own All-Star buzz while posting career year in his second season in Washington and fifth in the league.

The Wizards are modestly promoting a campaign to send Butler to Las Vegas, the site of the game.

Although he doesn’t rank among the fans’ top choices for forward on the Eastern Conference All-Star team, it seems likely that coaches will vote Butler in as a reserve whether or not the Wizards’ Eddie Jordan gets to coach the team.

“He’s playing at an All-Star level,” Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said of Butler after the game. “I’ll be very surprised if he doesn’t make the All-Star team. He definitely deserves it.”

In one of the many astute moves of his tenure, Grunfeld traded Kwame Brown — the disappointing former No. 1 pick of the 2001 draft — to the Los Angeles Lakers for Butler and Chucky Atkins before the start of last season. Butler responded with career bests in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage.

He proved a competent replacement for guard Larry Hughes, who signed with Cleveland, as the third member of the team’s so-called “Big Three” along with Arenas and forward Antawn Jamison.

This season, Butler is even better. He is the only Eastern Conference player averaging at least 20 points and eight rebounds a game, and is the only Wizards player to score in double figures in every game.

“He gets overshadowed because of what I’m doing this year,” Arenas said. “He’s been a solid player the whole, whole year. He’s playing like an All-Star. You can’t deny what he’s been doing. He’s been showing it every night.”

Butler’s trade to the Wizards was his second in a little more than a year. He was the 10th overall pick by the Miami Heat in 2002 and went to the Lakers after two seasons. But it wasn’t for “$10 and a draft pick,” he said. He was a big part of the trade that sent Shaquille O’Neal to the Heat. The trade to the Wizards gave Butler the distinction of twice being involved in deals for the overall No. 1 pick.

After Butler started as a rookie in Miami, the Heat drafted Dwyane Wade and his offense declined. It was even more challenging in L.A., where Kobe Bryant had the team to himself after O’Neal departed and was bent on repairing his damaged image after rape charges against him were dropped. And, Lamar Odom, who also came to the Lakers in the Shaq trade, was going to be the second guy, Butler said.

“I was kind of like in the shuffle a little,” he said. “Of course they wanted me, but I wasn’t the focus.”

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