ATLANTA | For about four minutes Friday night, it appeared the wizardry Flip Saunders and Co. performed in Washington’s season-opening victory at Dallas would carry over into a matchup with the Atlanta Hawks.
But efficiency and a double-digit lead quickly were replaced by sloppiness and a double-digit deficit. The Wizards never fully recovered and fell 100-89.
To make matters worse, forward Caron Butler bruised his left knee while diving for a loose ball, left in the second quarter and did not return. His status for Saturday’s home opener against the New Jersey Nets is in doubt.
Butler, who scored five quick points in the opening minutes but then went cold, left the game with seven minutes left in the second. During a timeout with 50 seconds left in the half, he stood back from the huddle and massaged his knee while grimacing and talking with trainers before going back to the locker room.
He tested his knee during third-quarter warmups but, after flexing it a few times, returned to the locker room and remained there the rest of the game.
It was another unfortunate twist for the Wizards, who already are without Antawn Jamison. The forward is recovering from a partially dislocated shoulder suffered in the preseason and isn’t likely to return for another two to four weeks.
Saunders said the Wizards don’t yet know enough about Butler’s condition to say whether he’s questionable or doubtful for Saturday’s game.
“Hopefully, he bounces back quickly, man,” center Brendan Haywood said. “Sometimes it’s just frustrating. It feels like we’re cursed.”
Nick Young started the third quarter in Butler’s place but missed all four shot attempts - after going 0-for-4 in the first half - and was pulled from the game. But the night had gone south long before Butler’s exit. After an initial eruption, which included Gilbert Arenas notching five points while handing out a pair of assists to help Washington build a 15-5 lead, the Wizards went cold.
The team missed eight of its final 12 shots in the first quarter, Arenas turned the ball over four times and Mike Miller, Fabricio Oberto and DeShawn Stevenson all got into foul trouble.
“When I got four quick turnovers, I stopped being aggressive, worrying about how many turnovers I get,” said Arenas, who scored 23 points on 9-for-22 shooting and had seven turnovers to four assists. “You just can’t play the game like that.”
The Hawks went on a 24-9 run in the last seven minutes of the quarter, with a 9-for-11 performance from the foul line aiding their efforts.
The 29-24 lead Atlanta held going into the second quarter ballooned to a 58-44 advantage at halftime. The keys to the turnaround were free throws (Atlanta was 17-for-19 at the break, while Washington was just 3-for-6), turnovers (the Hawks cashed in 10 turnovers for 10 first-half points) and rebounds (Atlanta held a 24-17 advantage).
Second-year center JaVale McGee managed to give the Wizards a spark after entering the game with 4:36 left in the third quarter. The Wizards cut the deficit to 75-65 with 34 seconds left in the third when McGee blocked a shot by Jamal Crawford and fired an outlet pass to a streaking Miller, who made the layup. McGee later made one of two foul shots, trimming the deficit to 77-66 entering the fourth.
Early in the final quarter, McGee notched another block that resulted in a breakaway jam by Miller, who made a jumper on his next trip down the court. McGee - who in a 10-minute span notched seven points, two rebounds and two blocks - threw down an alley-oop dunk from Randy Foye with 8:58 left, making the score 79-72.
But Washington came no closer.
“If you look at the stats, we still played a good game,” said Haywood, who had 19 points and nine rebounds. “We just turned the ball over too much and gave them too many free throw opportunities. Some of it was being aggressive, and some of it was something I can’t comment on.”
Andray Blatche added 13 points and six rebounds off the bench and was Washington’s only other double-digit scorer. Josh Smith led five double-digit Atlanta scorers with 20 points, eight rebounds, two assists and two blocks.
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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