- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

It’s funny what a difference a week can make in the NBA.

Last Saturday the Washington Wizards suffered a disheartening loss to the visiting Charlotte Bobcats. Falling three games below .500, they were in danger of losing the sixth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference as their advantage over Philadelphia dwindled to half-game. The 76ers, meanwhile, had won 12 of their last 15 games.

And a day later, Toronto earned a victory, extending their lead over Washington for the fifth spot to four games.

After the loss to Charlotte, Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said the heavy toll of injuries and rigorous schedule drained him and his players. Caron Butler had yet to return from his hip injury, Gilbert Arenas was still rehabbing his knee, Antawn Jamison was playing with a sore back, Antonio Daniels with a bum ankle and DeShawn Stevenson with a sore knee.

Jordan said his team needed to hold on until they could get some help in the form of healthy returns by Butler and Arenas.

A week later, the mood has changed drastically at Verizon Center.

Yesterday the Wizards were coming off of Thursday’s victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers where Butler enjoyed a successful return with a team-high 19 points.

“Each win makes you feel good,” Jordan said. “Each win, it’s a beautiful day. It’s a beautiful morning, you feel great.”

With the victory, the Wizards (32-32) reached the .500 mark for the first time since Feb. 6. They also increased their lead over Philadelphia to 1½ games and pulled within two games of Toronto.

The struggling Raptors have aided the Wizards’ surge for fifth place. Toronto has lost five of its last seven games in the absence of injured All-Star forward Chris Bosh — its leading scorer and rebounder.

A tough West Coast road trip has also tested Toronto. The Raptors lost their first two of the four-game swing and face Denver tonight, which ended too late for this edition.

“We don’t like to talk about that, but I think we all sort of have a feel for it,” Jordan said of his team’s chances to catch the Raptors before smiling and conceding, “but if they continue stay West, it’s good for the meantime.”

The Wizards approach tonight’s home game against the Los Angeles Clippers and Monday’s game against the visiting Atlanta Hawks with optimism, realizing they have a chance to further improve their position before heading to Orlando on Wednesday and Miami on Friday.

“It’s definitely encouraging to know that we’ve been doing an OK job without certain people in the lineup,” Jamison said. “And now that we have guys coming back — Caron’s back and hopefully Gil is back in the next week or two. This is the team that we expected to play throughout the season.

“We’re in a tight race as far as maybe moving up to the fifth spot, trying to protect the sixth spot and not falling down to the seventh spot. We have to be careful because it’s going to take some time to get the chemistry back with everybody.”

Jamison said it’s important he and his teammates communicate effectively on defense, so blown assignments caused by confusion between those that have played and those who are newly re-acclimated won’t cost the Wizards victories.

“We realize how important this stand is, with us playing the Clippers, then playing Atlanta and then we’ve got Orlando and Miami and Detroit before heading West. So we realize the importance of these games, especially the ones at home.”

Today’s game

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS AT WASHINGTON WIZARDS

When: 7 p.m.

Where: Verizon Center

TV/radio: CSN, AM-980

Probable starters: Clippers — F Corey Maggette, F Tim Thomas, F Josh Powell, G Cuttino Mobley, G Brevin Knight. Wizards — F Antawn Jamison, F Caron Butler, C Brendan Haywood, G Antonio Daniels, G DeShawn Stevenson.

Injuries: Clippers — C Chris Kaman (back), F Paul Davis (knee), G Shaun Livingston (knee), C Elton Brand (Achilles’). Wizards — G Gilbert Arenas (knee), C Etan Thomas (heart surgery).

Outlook: The Wizards seek their first three-game winning streak since Jan. 14. … In their first meeting this season, Washington edged Los Angeles 91-89, thanks to a tip-in by Jamison as time expired. … The Clippers are last in the Pacific Division and have struggled without Brand, who has missed all of the season with a ruptured Achilles’. … Maggette leads the team with 22.1 points a game.

Mike Jones

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