- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2007

PHILADELPHIA — On a night Wachovia Center had thousands of empty seats, Gilbert Arenas’ ritual jersey toss could have easily landed in one of the arena’s many vacant red spots.

But the jersey of Washington Wizards forward Andray Blatche had a specific target — his mother, Angela Oliver.

Blatche had his first career double-double in his second career start, helping Washington overcome Arenas’ poor shooting night with a 92-85 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in front of a generously listed crowd of 10,744.

The 20-year-old forward finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds and emerged as a defensive force with a game- and career-high four shots.

“I’m going to take my jersey and give it to my mother to frame it,” Blatche said. “I feel good about myself right now.”

Arenas, who will start for the Eastern Conference in the All-Star Game on Sunday, struggled to find his shot, finishing with 22 points on 8-for-26 shooting, including 1-for-9 from 3-point range. Arenas is now just 42-for-127 from the field in his last six games.

Caron Butler, a first-time All-Star, was just 7-for-20 and finished with 16 points and eight assists.

But Blatche and others were there to fill the void, helping lead the Wizards (29-21) to the midpoint of the season with the lead in the Southeast Division.

With Arenas and Butler averaging more than 40 minutes a game, coach Eddie Jordan said the wear and tear is probably beginning to show — which is why he was happy to see a strong showing from Blatche and others in helping the Wizards to their second win in six games.

“It was the role players that we have missed for a long time — a long time — and they all came together tonight,” Jordan said. “It’s only human nature that the minutes that Gil, Caron and Antawn [Jamison] carry are going to fatigue you.

“But this is a great win because it’s on the road, and it’s a great win because guys contributed what we’ve been missing. We said coming in that we wanted to play the right way, that we wanted guys coming in playing hard, smart and contributing. Win or lose we’ll just see what happens, and we won. So it looks good from that point, and it looks good going into the All-Star break. So it looks good.”

Blatche was not the only player to make strides last night. Darius Songaila, who missed the first 45 games recovering from back surgery, had a season-high 12 points. Calvin Booth came off the bench to add eight points and eight rebounds.

“We couldn’t go into the break with this loss,” Booth said. “We had to take some of the heat off of Gil and CB, and I think we did that.”

The 76ers had six players in double figures, led by Andre Iguodala’s 14 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds.

But Philadelphia managed just 85 points, the lowest total for a Wizards opponent this season. The Wizards held the 76ers (17-36) to just 38 percent shooting, another good sign going into the break — even if the 76ers are among the three worst teams in the league.

The Wizards reached the All-Star break last year at 26-25. And they didn’t play much better in the second half of the season, finishing 16-15.

But despite their current troubles, the Wizards played well enough to put Jordan in the All-Star Game this weekend. They did this without Songaila, who should find his form after missing the first three months of the season.

Etan Thomas, suspended two games for his fight with Brendan Haywood, will return when the regular season resumes Tuesday at Verizon Center, where the Wizards play host to Minnesota. Most importantly, Jamison, who was given a timeline of three to six weeks for his return, will be entering his third week out after the break.

Add this to the unfettered mediocrity of the Eastern Conference, and the expectations for this team that were driven so high early on should continue to remain at that level through the end of the regular season and into the playoffs.

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