- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2006

ATLANTA — Caron Butler has no problem admitting it now.

“We were a mess,” the Washington Wizards forward said, discussing the lack of chemistry that enveloped the team during the first half of the season. “It wasn’t there early on. But it takes time. Everybody has a system, and it was taking us a while to adjust to this system. Now everybody is adjusting, and it’s coming along.”

Team chemistry — or, as it applied to the Wizards in the early going, the lack thereof — is now the most frequently discussed element among the Wizards (39-35), who will try to win for the 10th time in their last 15 games tonight at Atlanta.

When the chemistry started to become palpable, though, is up for debate. Some players say it began during their recent six-game road trip, when the Wizards went 3-3, made a late-season lineup change and won a game in Sacramento for the first time since 1996.

Others say it happened after the All-Star break. Yet others say it was at the start of a five-game home winning streak just before the break. Including those five games, the Wizards have gone 18-12 since.

Where it began ultimately is unimportant. What remains clear, though, is the Wizards are building confidence — especially at the defensive end — at the optimum time of the season.

“We’re in a rhythm right now, especially at the defensive end,” guard Jared Jeffries said. “We’re getting stops, and we’re getting out and running. And we’re taking good shots. That allows us to get back at the defensive end.”

The defense kicked into overdrive for the Wizards in their win at Boston on Wednesday. In impressive fashion, the Wizards held the Celtics — a team with a remote chance at the playoffs — to just 13 points in the fourth quarter.

But the telling factor was that the Wizards held the Celtics without a field goal for the last 7:26 of the game. That transformed what had been a one-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter into an easy 108-91 victory.

In their previous three meetings, the games had been decided by just four points and twice went into overtime.

Jordan has gotten so comfortable with the Wizards that he is now able to experiment with his roster. In the past few weeks he has used Jeffries to defend all five positions.

He has become more comfortable with Butler playing the passing lanes, evidenced by Butler’s season-high tying five steals against Boston.

Offensively, the Wizards haven’t had any problems all season, mostly because of Gilbert Arenas, Butler and Antawn Jamison — all capable of putting up huge numbers.

But the offense is also starting to be more fluid.

In his last four games Arenas has averaged 10 assists. That isn’t a coincidence, either. Arenas told reporters he has made a concerted effort to be more of a facilitator the last two weeks.

Earlier in the season, when the Wizards just wanted the league’s fourth-leading scorer (29.0) to score in bunches, that might have caused a problem.

Not now, when everything is falling just right for the Wizards.

“Everybody is being positive. This is the best it’s been all season long,” Jamison said. “On the court we are moving the ball and playing some defense. Off the court guys are focused, hanging out and having a good time. We went through some things to get the chemistry to where it is now. But I like the way we are playing basketball. Nobody is caring about who is getting the recognition, who led the team in scoring or anything else. Right now we just want to win basketball games.”

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