- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The phrase “All-Star break,” which implies the NBA season has reached its midpoint, couldn’t be any more misleading.

The Washington Wizards marked the actual midpoint of their season nearly four weeks ago, getting thrashed by Phoenix at home 127-105.

When they play host to Minnesota at Verizon Center, the Southeast Division-leading Wizards (29-21) will find themselves involved in a sprint, playing the remaining 32 games of the season in less than two months.

They will see the steadily improving defending champion Miami Heat, buttressed by the returns of center Shaquille O’Neal and coach Pat Riley, attempt to recover from a slow start and challenge for the division title.

Judging from what was said yesterday following the Wizards’ first practice since Wednesday’s victory at Philadelphia, it is a challenge the Wizards welcome.

“Everybody is about to start making the proper adjustments and bringing their best game, and we have to do the same,” All-Star forward Caron Butler said. “We have the talent on the court to do it. Our goal is still to win a championship and take it to a whole other level. We’re second to none, and we’re just trying to go out and win games.”

The Wizards lead their division and sit third in the conference mainly because of their 19-7 home record. They hold a 31/2-game lead over second-place Orlando and a four-game lead over Miami, which has won seven of its last 10 games.

The Heat have had strong finishes in recent years, notably in 2003-04 — with Butler on the team — when they closed 17-4 and reached the second round of the playoffs.

This Miami team, when healthy, no doubt is better than that one.

Still, Wizards coach Eddie Jordan believes the Wizards are equipped to hold off the Heat.

“We have veterans on this team who have been there,” said Jordan, who coached the Eastern Conference All-Stars. “I don’t see them succumbing to any pressure.”

Although the Wizards have lost four of their last six games, those losses occurred without the services of their captain Antawn Jamison, who is averaging 19.3 points and 7.9 rebounds.

Jamison, who suffered a sprained knee Jan. 30, is in his fourth week of what the Wizards originally said would be a six-week healing process.

Jamison has maintained he would return in less than six weeks. After his teammates left the practice court yesterday, Jamison, who did not participate in drills, looked good while shooting jumpers and working up a sweat under the watchful eye of assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr.

While Jordan said it is likely Jamison won’t be back for another two weeks, Gilbert Arenas said Jamison told him he felt good and that he will be back in “about another week.”

Arenas, who made his first All-Star start in his third appearance, also said the Wizards could hold off the Heat, indicating there was no reason to believe the Wizards could not duplicate this year’s first-half success.

“I think we like where we’re sitting,” Arenas said. “We are going to get Antawn back soon. We’re also getting back Michael Ruffin after his injury, and Darius [Songaila] is going to help us a lot in the second half.

“The key is that we’ve got to get off to a good start. We’ve got these games coming this week against Minnesota and Sacramento, and then we go on the road for three straight [Chicago, Minnesota and New Jersey]. We have to look at it like these other teams in the East are all in striking distance. But we’re going to be OK.”

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