- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 17, 2007

This is the time of year that Caron Butler loves. He just wishes it would love him back.

For the second consecutive season, the Washington Wizards have reached a critical point in the season, and once again Butler will not be a part of it. Instead, Butler will miss the next seven to 10 days — including the team’s crucial West Coast trip beginning next week — with a knee bruise.

Last April, a thumb injury forced Butler to miss five games, all of them losses, as the Wizards (35-28) fought for a playoff spot.

“If it wasn’t for bad luck I wouldn’t have no luck at all,” Butler said after the team’s practice at Verizon Center yesterday afternoon. “I mean, it goes from my back to my knee to now having to sit out. Maybe it’s meant to be like this. But once the swelling goes down I’m looking to get back out there at full strength.”

First in the Southeast Division for the better part of the last three months, the Wizards hope that when Butler does return it won’t be too late. Miami, which beat Washington at the buzzer last Sunday, entered last night’s game trailing the Wizards by a half-game and has won eight straight.

Conversely, the Wizards just ended a three-game skid Wednesday against the Indiana Pacers, and overall they have lost seven of their last 11 games.

Butler, averaging 19.1 points a game, suffered the injury on March 7 at Atlanta. However, the pain hasn’t been severe, and Butler has mostly complained about stiffness.

Still, he pulled himself from Wednesday’s game in the second quarter.

Fortunately for the Wizards, an MRI conducted on Thursday revealed that Butler is not facing any structural damage.

After posting 19 points and 11 rebounds against Atlanta, Butler — who missed three games in February with back spasms — scored 10, four and two points, respectively, in the next three games.

Butler decided yesterday that he needed to rest his knee.

“It’s not gong to get better by playing on it,” he said. “We’re going to rest it until it’s right.”

With Butler shelved, the Wizards will start Jarvis Hayes. Hayes, who will become a restricted free agent this summer, has had a largely disappointing season this year after coming off knee surgery 13 months ago. He’s averaging just 6.1 points and shooting a disappointing 38.9 percent from the field.

Despite the fact that his shot hasn’t been falling, Hayes has played hard at the defensive end. At the same time he has been willing to do the dirty work, which coaches love.

His contract, he says, won’t influence his play.

“It’s team first,” Hayes said, while adding it’s hard to not think about his future. “It’s hard but you have to [put it out of your mind]. If I go out there thinking about my contract first I’ll look like a fool. You have to put things in perspective and try to win ball games.”

The Wizards have struggled recently against bad teams, dropping games to undermanned New York and Atlanta. And earlier in the season they lost to tonight’s opponent, New Orleans, when the Hornets were without three starters.

The next stretch of games features plenty of lottery teams — 10 of the next 12 having losing records — but Wizards coach Eddie Jordan knows that his team can’t afford to take its opponents lightly.

“I don’t look at it that way, those are just numbers,” Jordan said. “We are on the road and those teams have played better since we’ve played them. They are good teams, man. They are good teams.”

Note — Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas were both excused from practice yesterday for personal reasons. Arenas missed the session to attend the birth of his second child, a boy.

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