MINNEAPOLIS | It was billed as Wizards vs. Timberwolves, though it just as easily could have been beleaguered vs. downtrodden, hapless vs. hurting and inert vs. inept.
But two Washington veterans accustomed to better times, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, pulled their club out of the morass. Butler finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds and Jamison added 26 points in a 110-99 victory Monday night at Target Center.
The Wizards (15-49) broke open the game by outscoring Minnesota 33-15 during a second-half span and won on the road for only the fifth time in 32 tries this season.
Besides beings a battle of unflattering adjectives, the finale of the Wizards’ 1-3 Western Conference trip was a duel of unsavory alternatives: Would a team rather play without its best player (Gilbert Arenas), relying on clearly delineated second and third options (Jamison, Butler) - or go half the season without its best player (Al Jefferson), who also happens to be its lone star? Some choice.
“You had two teams that have been struggling of late, and we knew they were going to come out and probably think that this was a winnable game,” said Jamison, who scored 19 of his points after halftime. “We let one slip away the first game of the trip, then played well in Dallas, and we just wanted to at least get a win.”
The Wizards, in sweeping the season series with Minnesota (they won 111-103 on Feb. 17 at Verizon Center), did it by leaning on and playing off of Jamison and Butler. That’s how Darius Songaila got 19 points and missed only one of nine shots, and that’s how Juan Dixon spelled Javaris Crittenton at point guard and chipped in nine points, six rebounds and four assists. Mike James became the latest Washington starter to sit out, scratched before tipoff with the flu, and rookie big man Oleksiy Pecherov also didn’t participate because of flu symptoms.
Wizards interim coach Ed Tapscott, in assessing Jamison and Butler’s value earlier in the evening, said they “have kept me from going crazy. That’s probably the first thing they’ve done.”
The pair did more than that against the Wolves (18-45), who dropped their 10th consecutive game and are 1-12 since losing Jefferson - an All-Star candidate at power forward - for the rest of the season with a torn knee ligament Feb. 8.
“They made the type of plays All-Star players make,” Tapscott said. “With as young a team as we have, if they’re able to put up numbers, we’re competitive. We know teams are gearing to stop them, so we just need to move the ball a little more. Guys play off of them, and [those teammates will] be very efficient.”
That’s the biggest difference between the Wizards without Arenas and the Wolves sans Jefferson; the drop-off to the next tier of players is greater in Minnesota.
“You’re asking guys to probably step a little out of their skin and do stuff they’re not as comfortable doing,” Minnesota coach Kevin McHale said. “You’re saying, ‘Boy, we’ve got to make up X amount of points - who’s going to do it?’ … When you go to move up a spot or two and all of a sudden you’re a 10-point-a-game scorer but they’re saying, ‘Boy, for us to win, you’ve got to give us 17,’ you get out of your skin a little bit.”
Tell it to Tapscott. The Wizards have had more than their share of unplanned absences. With James joining the usual inactives - Arenas, DeShawn Stevenson, Brendan Haywood, Etan Thomas - the club used its 14th different starting lineup this season, with Crittenton starting for only the second time in his career.
“You have to take it in stride,” Jamison said. “One thing that made it easier to deal with was Juan. He’s been around and been in situations before. I kind of knew [Crittenton] was going to be 100 miles per hour, but he settled down as well.”
The Wizards led through the first half, though never by more than seven. In the third quarter, they found themselves down 62-59 with 6:17 to go. But Jamison and Butler stepped up; the former scored 12 points, and the latter contributed a bucket and a slick pass to Songaila for another layup. In other words, they had a hand in 16 consecutive points for Washington, opening a 75-67 lead.
By the start of the fourth, the younger Wizards were piling on. They outscored Minnesota 13-4 early in the quarter for a 92-77 lead with 7:54 left.