- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2006

The cheerleaders were the first to don them, sprinting onto the Verizon Center court to gyrate in the playoffs shirts that had been collecting mothballs for almost a week since the team traveled with them to Philadelphia.

But those shirts — the ones that read “One team, One goal” across the back — finally can be worn. After a few false starts, the Wizards are, indeed, in the playoffs for the second straight season.

Caron Butler, out the last five games with a sprained right thumb, returned last night and gave the Wizards the toughness and punch that had seemingly vanished, finishing with 21 points and eight rebounds as the Wizards turned in a well-rounded performance in a 104-92 victory over Cleveland, the team they hope to face in the playoffs, which begin this weekend.

If there were any doubt how much the Wizards (40-40) missed what Butler brings, it became apparent late in the first half, when Cleveland center Zydrunas Ilgauskas fouled Gilbert Arenas (35 points) so hard that the Wizards’ All-Star guard went crashing to the floor.

In no time, Butler was in the 7-footer’s face with some choice words that can’t be repeated here.

“We’ve been missing that kind of toughness from our lineup,” Arenas said. “When you are missing one of your enforcers, his sweet jumper and his tough defense, it hurts us. Everybody is glad to have him back.”

With just two games left, the Wizards are in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. They desperately want to avoid finishing seventh or eighth, which would mean a meeting with either of the Eastern powers, Detroit or Miami, in the first round.

“That’s why we have to go out and win the next two games against Milwaukee and Detroit,” said center Brendan Haywood, who had seven points and five rebounds. “These are must-win games for us.”

No one seemed any happier than Butler, who talked emotionally following the Wizards’ loss at Chicago on Sunday about wanting to be back and playing alongside his “brothers.”

“I was just ready and I wasn’t going to hold anything back,” Butler said. “I got the clearance from the medical staff. Being out was tough because we had a lot of games that we had to win and we didn’t. Now that we’re finally in we’re going to keep playing hard and take this thing as far as we can go.”

Eddie Jordan, who became the first Wizards coach to lead the franchise to the playoffs in consecutive seasons since Kevin Loughery did so in 1986-87, said he was holding his breath in the first few minutes of the game, hoping Butler would be able to handle passes first and ultimately be comfortable on the floor.

Once he and Butler realized Butler would be OK, Jordan wanted his team to focus on beating a Cleveland team and getting into the playoffs after a rough start.

“We want to hold onto fifth,” Jordan said. “Recently we’ve lost some tough games, some heartbreakers. We wanted to bring all of that pain tonight and dish it right out.”

Without starting center Etan Thomas (back) the Wizards did just that in the third quarter, when they stretched what had been a double-digit lead to 88-62.

But the Cavaliers (48-32) put a scare in the crowd of 18,405 in the fourth quarter when they scored 15 unanswered points to pull to within 88-77 with 7:04 to play. They did this with LeBron James (17 points) and former Wizard Larry Hughes (11 points) both on the bench.

But Butler ended that run with a 5-footer. And while the Cavaliers would get the lead back down to 96-87 with 3:12 to play, the Wizards held them to just one more field goal the rest of the way.

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