- The Washington Times - Monday, February 27, 2006

The Wizards have reclaimed their season because of the assimilation of Caron Butler and Antonio Daniels, a renewed commitment to defense and an Eastern Conference that lends itself to a good number of get-well dates.

The increasing contributions of Butler and Daniels have reduced the departure of the eternally injured Larry Hughes to a stroke of fortuity.

His decision to join the serial nail-biter in Cleveland has evolved from unsettling to hands mopping the brow amid a chorus of “Whew.”

Butler is a far better shooter from 20 feet than anyone initially imagined, and Daniels has shown himself to be a basketball savant.

Butler provides the grit and in-your-face conviction that is often lacking if the implacable Michael Ruffin is on the bench.

Daniels shot like the seeing-impaired before the Wizards employed the addition-by-subtraction method with Chucky Atkins. The rejuvenation of Daniels became complete late in the see-saw affair in Cleveland, where he decided to shoot the ball from the top of the key.

He possibly heard the cries of no from these environs as he released the shot. The cringe-inducing moment soon turned to cries of yes as the ball dropped through the cylinder.

The victory in Cleveland was as consequential as the one in Indiana in mid-January, when the Wizards showed their first signs of interest on defense.

That compelling about-face coincided with the stern message of coach Eddie Jordan that left Brendan Haywood and Antawn Jamison on the bench.

Haywood, in particular, processes information best after Jordan appeals to his derriere instead of his head. This resolution has contributed to the thinking that perhaps Jordan should bench Haywood every two or three games to keep his motivation sharp.

The motivation of the Wizards should be clear enough the rest of the way, assuming they want to avoid a first-round playoff date with either the Pistons or Heat. That will require a seed no lower than sixth, which is highly manageable in a conference stuffed with the suspicious.

Jordan is forever scratching his head over the team’s strength of schedule, determined to be worse than George Washington’s. Fortunately for the Wizards, they are not auditioning for a berth in the NCAA tournament.

Sixteen of their remaining 28 games are on the road, where the team’s deficiencies become most pronounced and a punch to the solar plexus is more apt to occur, whether it is Shaquille O’Neal being awarded a phantom call in the closing seconds in Miami or David West hitting the game-winning shot with 0.5 seconds left in Oklahoma City.

The challenge before the Wizards is to win six or seven road games in order to match their 45-win plateau last season. That projection is dependent on the Wizards maintaining their certitude at home.

Their dismantling of the toxic landfill known as the Knicks amounted to an unofficial forfeit on the schedule.

The exercise came with a predictable observation: look what Isiah Thomas dragged into Tony Cheng’s neighborhood, which was an appropriate venue for the visiting party in the Year of the Dog.

The no-show of the Knicks strained the plan of Gilbert Arenas to drop to eighth in scoring in the NBA. That mission became especially problematic in the vicinity of Stephon Marbury, whose halting movements on defense mimicked those of the zombies in “Night of the Living Dead.”

Arenas could have scored 60 points if Jordan had not taken pity on the Knicks and played everyone but Peter John Ramos, ensconced in Roanoke, perfecting his 3-point shot before each game and presumably avoiding the prospect of a carjacking the rest of the time.

Arenas and the Wizards have salvaged a season that looked especially shaky in early January, notably in miserable losses at home to the Rockets and the Jazz.

Yet their stretch of encouraging work won’t have a satisfying payoff unless they become more resolute on the road in the last seven weeks of the season.

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