- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006

CLEVELAND — Caron Butler has been quietly feeling more comfortable as the season has progressed. Last night, in a game that had a playoff feel to it, he bloomed.

Butler scored 24 points, including a career-high four 3-pointers — the most important dagger with 23.9 seconds left — as the Wizards defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 102-94. Butler also helped his teammates reduce All-Star Game MVP LeBron James to a bit player with the game on the line, totaling three steals and seven rebounds.

“It was big, yeah, but we felt all along that we were going to win this game — all night long,” Butler said. “We’ve been trying to get over the hump on the road. We’ve had some tough losses, games we thought we should have won. Tonight we weren’t going to let someone beat us.”

The Wizards win coupled with the Indiana Pacers’ loss to Atlanta put Washington (28-25) in fifth place in the Eastern Conference playoff race heading into tonight’s game with the New York Knicks.

Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas scored a game-high 26 points and had nine assists, and Antawn Jamison had 25 points and 12 rebounds as the Wizards ended a four-game road losing streak.

The loss was just the eighth at home for the Cavs, who have won 20 games at Quicken Loans Arena.

The Cavaliers (32-23) were playing without former Wizards guard Larry Hughes, who signed with them for close to $70 million in the offseason. Hughes is out for the season after hand surgery.

Early in the game, it looked like the Wizards might be beaten by James, who scored 21 points in the first half.

James failed to score a field goal in the second half, failed to score in the final 15 minutes, and missed his last seven shots. James, an Akron, Ohio, native was showered with boos late in the game at the free throw line, where he turned in a very Shaquille O’Neal-like 8-for-19 performance.

“It was a [lousy] performance by me tonight,” James said. “I put it all on myself tonight.”

But James led Cleveland with 25 points, nine assists and seven rebounds.

The Cavaliers collapsed down the stretch, at one point late in the fourth quarter committing four straight turnovers. And they scored just one field goal in the final 3:17.

The Wizards, who blew a 13-point first-quarter lead, went ahead for good 90-89 on Antonio Daniels’ (10 points, seven assists) driving layup with 4:37 to left.

Up 95-94, Daniels swished a 17-footer with 1:00 left. And after the Cavaliers failed to convert, the Wizards came out of a timeout and Arenas drew Cleveland defenders away from Butler and then fed him for what proved to be the clinching basket.

“We kept our focus and we played a very good game on the road,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “Ultimately it came down to us making big shots and them missing free throws.”

The Wizards matched their season-high with 10 3-pointers. They also committed just 10 turnovers while forcing the Cavaliers into 18.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 23 points and nine rebounds for the Cavs, and Donyell Marshall finished with 19 points and eight boards.

But overall it was a dissatisfying performance for Cleveland coach Mike Brown, an assistant in Washington when Bernie Bickerstaff coached the Wizards.

“That team came in here on a mission to kick our behind and they did,” Brown said. “They wanted to come in here and get a win and they did. We just got beat from Eddie Jordan on down.”

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