Sunday, April 3, 2005

Marginal player that he is, Kelvin Cato probably should have just kept his mouth shut. But he didn’t and wound up paying for it.

Cato, the starting center for the Orlando Magic, had just run by the Washington Wizards’ bench during the Wizards’ 111-102 road victory on Friday, roaring at Washington’s players, “Nobody will ever dunk on me!”

But with Etan Thomas on the court — and out of earshot of Cato’s rant — Cato’s bravado would soon come back to haunt him.

Moments later, Thomas went up and over Cato and jammed the ball home with a one-handed dunk that had Thomas’ teammates leaping from their seats to show their approval and Cato running back down court trying his best not to make eye contact with the Washington players.

“Etan is going to try to dunk everything,” Wizards guard Larry Hughes said. “He’s going to be physical, and he’s going to put pressure on the defense to step up. If you don’t, he’s going to go right over you.”

The victory was the Wizards’ fourth in a row and their third straight road win. Whether it is a coincidence that Thomas has been the starting center in all of those games — replacing injured Brendan Haywood — is debatable.

What is not up for debate is the late-season impact Thomas is having on the Wizards just when they need him most. In his four starts, Thomas is averaging 12.8 points and 9.4 points. The 6-foot-9, 260-pounder connected on 19 of 37 shots (51 percent).

For much of the season, it looked as if Thomas was going to be an afterthought. After he signed a six-year, $39 million contract extension, Kwame Brown suffered a severe abdominal strain in training camp.

While the Wizards forged ahead without him, Thomas did the best he could to feel like he was a part of one of the NBA’s biggest surprise teams. He finally made his debut against Portland on Jan. 12. In 13 minutes, Thomas contributed four points and four rebounds to help the Wizards to a 104-100 victory. However, it was clear Thomas wasn’t going to have the impact he wanted until he was fully recovered from his abdominal injury.

He experienced a breakthrough in his 14th game back when he dominated inside on Feb. 5 against Milwaukee, the team that last offseason offered him a contract the Wizards eventually matched. That night Thomas scored 23 points on 9-for-12 shooting and finished with eight rebounds as the Wizards rolled 112-94.

Now Thomas is rounding into shape, and not a moment too soon. Haywood (fractured thumb) was having a fine season before he went out, but he is viewed more as a finesse center who likes to step out high on offense.

Haywood could be back within two weeks or he might be out until the playoffs begin next month. Either way, when he does return he and Thomas will team to give the Wizards two distinctly different looks.

Thomas has “gotten better and better every game after he came back from his injury and he’s played very well as a starter,” coach Eddie Jordan said. “He’s given us that physical presence and that force that we missed in the early part of the season.”

The abdominal injury wasn’t the first test of Thomas’ career. He has never forgotten former Wizards coach Doug Collins telling him, according to Thomas, that once his rookie contract was up he’d be out of the league and looking for a job outside of basketball.

“That’s in the past,” said Thomas, 27. “In the future I’m looking for big things with this team. Everybody is playing basketball the right way. We’re not satisfied, and we’re not going to settle. We’re doing better than a lot of people thought we were going to do, and we’re doing better than we’ve done in the past. We’re looking for big things.”

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