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Wizards seeking eclipse of Suns

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Caron Butler, for one, can't wait.

The Pacific Division-leading Phoenix Suns (32-8) make their lone appearance at Verizon Center tonight as the highest-scoring and hottest team in the NBA, riding a 13-game winning streak. The Washington Wizards rank second in the league in scoring, have won 10 straight at home and hold the best record in the Eastern Conference.

"Everybody's confidence is at an all-time high," Wizards forward Butler said. "The fans are coming out to support us all season. Tomorrow it's going to be all business."

All business, plus a lot of subplots.

The last time the Wizards faced the Suns, the result was a thrilling 144-139 overtime Washington victory in December as guard Gilbert Arenas scored 54 points.

The rematch features two serious MVP candidates in Arenas and Suns guard Steve Nash, as well as two teams in contention for a top conference seed in the playoffs.

It also features one player and one team with strong motives for revenge.

Arenas was not included on the U.S. team for last summer's world championships, and he vowed revenge on anyone who had anything to do with it, including Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, an assistant for the U.S. team. He got some satisfaction with a dazzling performance in the Wizards' victory over the Suns last month.

The Suns, in turn, not only were lit up on their home floor by Arenas that night but were riding a 15-game win streak that ended with the loss.

"It is going to be a very exciting game," Arenas said. "They are on a great winning streak and have been playing some great basketball. We have won 10 in a row at home, so it should be exciting. It is going to be a great battle between East versus West."

Arenas often refers to the Wizards as the "Phoenix Suns of the East," and for about the last six weeks that has been a pretty good assessment.

The Suns lead the league in scoring at 111.5 points a game. The Wizards rank second at 107.5. However, while the Suns are winning their games by an average of almost nine points, the Wizards are winning by only 1.5 points a contest.

And while the Suns have been steady all season long, the Wizards' season can be divided into two halves.

The first half belonged to the team that began the season 4-9, posting ugly losses against bad teams such as the New York Knicks and Memphis Grizzlies. But the Wizards have transformed themselves, starting with a victory over Dallas on Dec. 4 that ended the Mavericks' 12-game winning streak. The Wizards have gone 20-7 since.

The message coach Eddie Jordan has tried to impart to the Wizards has gotten through, particularly at the offensive end. The Wizards, over the last 27 games, have been just as potent as the Suns, averaging 111.6 points.

As a result, the Wizards (24-16) are tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the best record in the Eastern Conference. The last time Washington stood so high in the standings this late in the season was at the end of the 1978-79 season.

"You can sense the excitement, and we're looking forward to the challenge -- that's what we're gearing up for," Jordan said. "We have to manage the game, not allow them to get runs, and not make a lot of mistakes on our end. I want to see improvement from what we did the other night."

That the Wizards and Suns mirror each other was highlighted by the fact Nash and Butler yesterday each earned conference player of the week honors.

Nash, averaging 19.5 points and a league-best 11.5 assists, is pushing for a third MVP honor. Butler is averaging career highs in points (21.0), rebounds (8.1), assists (4.1) and steals (2.0), and he expects tonight's matchup to bring out the best in both teams.

"We know what they like to do. They come out, and it's like playing an AAU team," Butler said. "They play at a high tempo and Steve Nash is unbelievable. He's a joy to watch."