- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2008

During a dismal February in which they finished with a 3-10 record, Washington Wizards coach Eddie Jordan and his players said they needed to find a way to stay afloat until March.

March arrived, and sure enough, the Wizards have gotten their groove back. They have won five of their last six games and moved into fifth place in the Eastern Conference by beating Miami on Friday.

For all but two February games, the Wizards played without forward Caron Butler. The two-time All-Star, who led the team in scoring with 21.4 points a game without the injured Gilbert Arenas, suffered a labral tear in his left hip.

Fellow All-Star Antawn Jamison logged an even heavier load in both minutes and production at both ends of the court while nursing a sore back.

The team’s starting backcourt of Antonio Daniels and DeShawn Stevenson played, as Jordan often described it, on one leg each, with Daniels suffering from bone spurs in his ankle and Stevenson hampered by a sore knee.

The injuries hurt the chemistry that made the Wizards one of the NBA’s hottest teams in January.

After averaging 96.6 points in January, the Wizards dipped to 94.7 points. Their opponents averaged 96.8 points a game in January, but that number rose to 99.1 in February.

But Washington has gone 7-3 while outscoring their opponents 101.1-99.4 this month. Jamison’s 25.6 points and 10.0 rebounds in the last 10 games have led the way. Reserve guards Roger Mason Jr. and Nick Young also picked up the slack for the injured Stevenson and Daniels during the first two weeks of the month.

“We’re getting there,” Jamison said. “Guys are getting healthy. When Caron came back, it was another playmaker out there to make things easier on certain guys. … The effort has always been there. It’s just defensively getting to the way we played Wednesday night [in a win at Orlando] and making it tough for certain guys. Offensively, we’re always going to get the job done.”

In Butler’s return, he helped Washington earn a big win over Cleveland on March 13. In the next 2½ games, his lack of conditioning because of his 16-game absence was evident. But in the second half of the victory over Orlando, he rediscovered his rhythm. At the same time, the Wizards started playing like they had before the February slump.

The Wizards ran Jordan’s Princeton offense, using ball movement to wear down the Magic until they found openings for quality shots. The strong play continued Friday night in Miami. Butler led the way with 25 points, Jamison added 22 more, Mason had 11 and the Wizards shot a combined 53.4 percent from the field while recording 25 assists.

“It’s just a chemistry thing,” said Daniels, who accounted for seven of those assists and nine points. “We understand each other. I understand what Caron’s going to bring. I understand what DeShawn’s going to do. DeShawn understands what I’m going to do. You know, we’ve been playing together for a while now, so that chemistry’s there.”

And it probably will need to be there tonight, when Central Division-leading Detroit comes to the District, and for a five-game western trip after that.

“Throughout 82 games, man, it’s like playing 18 holes [of golf],” Jordan said. “You hit a few good shots, and you say, ‘How can I bottle this up?’ and you just can’t. But if we can stay professional and keep our energy up … just keep a professional mind-set — all 11 guys that we have — then we can get things done.”

Today’s game

DETROIT PISTONS AT WASHINGTON WIZARDS

When: 8 p.m.

Where: Verizon Center

TV/radio: CSN, ESPN, AM-980

Probable starters: Pistons — F Tayshaun Prince, F Rasheed Wallace, C Antonio McDyess, G Chauncey Billups, G Richard Hamilton. Wizards — F Antawn Jamison, F Caron Butler, C Brendan Haywood, G Antonio Daniels, G DeShawn Stevenson.

Injuries: Pistons — None reported. Wizards — G Gilbert Arenas (knee), C Etan Thomas (heart surgery).

Outlook: Tonight’s game marks the second of three meetings between Washington and Detroit. The Pistons won the first game 106-93 at Verizon Center on Jan. 2. … Jamison is having his finest month of the season, averaging 25.6 points and 10.0 rebounds a game. … Daniels will make a career-high 51st start tonight. With him at the point, the Wizards are 29-21 this season.

Mike Jones

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