- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

LOS ANGELES — Gilbert Arenas was almost right when he said he never had started a Western road swing with a win since joining the Washington Wizards before the 2003-04 season.

In truth, the Wizards opened their first trip across the Mississippi in his second year with the team with a 120-116 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.

But following a critical 109-97 victory at Utah on Friday, it was understandable that Arenas, who seems to have an almost photographic recollection of what has transpired on the basketball court, might have been caught up in the exuberance of the locker room following a key victory.

What would be even more impressive for Arenas and his teammates would be to start this trip at 2-0, which is something they haven’t done in Arenas’ tenure with the team.

It won’t be easy, though, because just as Thursday’s opponent was fighting to get into the playoffs, today’s — the Los Angeles Clippers (39-28) — is trying to clinch its first playoff berth since 1997. The Clippers were a half-game ahead of Memphis for the fifth playoff spot before last night’s games.

The prospect of facing the Clippers is why the Wizards didn’t spend much time celebrating Thursday night’s win at Delta Center.

The Wizards had to endure a halftime that stretched almost 30 minutes because of the Jazz retiring Karl Malone’s No. 32 jersey. The Wizards haven’t been that strong in the third quarter this season, and the fact that they had to put their warmups back on and pounce around to stay warm before the second half didn’t make things much easier.

But in the second half, the Wizards looked sharp. They did let the Jazz whittle their 50-41 halftime lead down to 56-52, but thanks to a 15-point quarter by Caron Butler — who finished with 27 — the Wizards ended the quarter with an 11-point lead.

“It’s great coming out here and getting the first game of the road trip just to keep the doubters quiet for a second,” Butler said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge of playing the Clippers. This is exciting.”

One notable fact about the Clippers — other than that they are the best team in Los Angeles — is that they handed the Wizards their first loss of the season after three wins.

That night, the Clippers’ 102-97 victory over the Wizards will be remembered for the ease in which Elton Brand scored on the Wizards’ interior defenders, totaling 31 points on 14-for-18 shooting.

That means the Wizards’ big men — Brendan Haywood, Etan Thomas and, to a lesser degree, Michael Ruffin — need to be tougher against Brand inside.

“It’s going to be a challenge for all of us,” Wizards forward Antawn Jamison said. “When we played them the last time, Elton pretty much kicked our [behinds]. That can’t happen again. We need for everyone to pick it up.”

That looks like the mind-set the Wizards have adopted, although more will be known on that subject today.

“It’s a big game. This whole trip is big for us because every East Coast team that’s in the race is licking their chops watching us,” Arenas said of the Wizards, who have five games left on this trip. “We need to go out and play hard. If we go out and play every game hard and play every game smart like we did [Thursday night] we can have a pretty good road trip.”

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