- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

Earlier this season, Antonio Daniels looked like one of the biggest free agent busts in the NBA.

That, of course, no longer is the case.

Daniels, who continually has improved the past two months, was at his best yesterday, scoring a season-high 21 points on his 31st birthday in a 113-104 victory over the Chicago Bulls at Verizon Center.

“I think this is the time of year for a veteran to step up — guys who have been in the playoffs like he has, guys who are dedicated,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said after his team improved to 34-31. “So he’s focused in more, and he knows that each shot means a whole lot now. It’s that time of the year for those types of guys.”

Daniels, who signed a five-year, $30 million deal with the Wizards over the summer, looked awful for about the first two months of the season.

But after the Wizards and Chucky Atkins agreed on a buyout Jan. 18, Daniels found his comfort zone. This month he has been at this best, averaging 14.3 points, 2.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists a game.

“It takes a while to find your niche,” Daniels said. “You’re pressing. You’re trying to live up to this, you’re trying to live up to that. You need to just calm down and be yourself, and it took a while for me to just be myself. It’s a different situation — new coaching staff, new team, new organization, new system. Once you find a way to blend yourself in without trying to do too much, everything kind of falls into place.

“Some nights it’s scoring, some nights it’s not,” Daniels said. “Some nights it’s defending. If everybody falls in and plays their role to the best of their abilities, we don’t worry about who gets credit and we’re a hard team to beat.”

The Bulls, the team the Wizards defeated in six games in the first round of the playoffs last season, would have no arguments with that after yesterday.

The Wizards led by 10 at the end of the first quarter, 22 late in the second quarter and by 27 in the third.

Whenever the Bulls (29-38) looked as if they might make a move to get back in it, the Wizards always answered. Led by Ben Gordon’s 20 points, the Bulls got the lead under double figures on a few occasions. But the challenge was always rebuffed.

Such was the case with 8:05 to play in the fourth quarter when Chris Duhon’s layup cut the Wizards’ lead to 93-86.

Antawn Jamison (23 points, seven rebounds) responded with a 3-pointer and a finger roll to return the Wizards’ lead to 98-86.

“We dug a 20-point hole against a good team at home,” Chicago coach Scott Skiles said. “It’s very difficult at that point to come back and win. Even when it got close, Jamison got away from us. He has been a key guy whenever we have played against them”

The Wizards got 25 points, five rebounds and four steals from Caron Butler, and Gilbert Arenas led the Wizards with 29 points and seven assists as Washington had four players score at least 20 points in the same game for the first time since Nov. 25 at Detroit.

The Wizards also got a sound effort from their bench. Along with Daniels’ 21, Washington also got 10 points and six rebounds from Etan Thomas.

Yesterday, in fact, marked the first time since a March 5 win over Sacramento that the Wizards got double figures in scoring out of more than one reserve.

With the win, the Wizards can turn their attention to a big game against Atlantic Division-leading New Jersey. The Nets will visit Verizon Center tomorrow in the final game of this four-game homestand.

After that, the Wizards will play 12 of their last 16 games on the road, including a six-game trip out west beginning in Utah on Thursday.

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