- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

The return of Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison is the expectant development that is supposed to pull the Wizards out of the free-fall mode before they go splat.

Their four-game losing streak has been exacerbated by the shooting slump of Gilbert Arenas, who apparently has picked up the rim-rattling bug of Jarvis Hayes.

Coach Eddie Jordan undoubtedly felt obligated to rework a line from Casey Stengel: Can’t anybody here shoot the ball?

The Wizards teetered their way to 83 points against the marginal Heat, too old and too tired but still full of hubris.

The sight of Gary Payton jawing with the referees after being caught grabbing the jersey of Arenas was almost as absurd as Alonzo Mourning giving Darius Songaila a stupid look after blocking his shot.

All this extraneous action comes from a team that is one game under .500 and going nowhere if Dwyane Wade does not return to the fold this season.

Give the Heat credit. They beat up on a cripple.

The Wizards were hardly the team that scored 77 points in the first half against the Grizzlies in late December and then followed it with 66 points in the first half against the Bobcats the next night.

The Wizards have been missing two of their three best players, or all three if you count the brick artist who is inhabiting the body of Arenas.

The sinking quality of the Wizards was not helped by the appearance of referee Greg Willard.

The uneasiness between the Wizards and Willard goes back to LeBron James being allowed to hop, skip and jump en route to hitting the game-winning basket in Game 3 of the Wizards-Cavaliers series last spring.

Willard also was on the floor in San Antonio in mid-January, when Jordan was ejected from the proceedings after objecting to Bruce Bowen’s assault on Arenas that led to a turnover and a dunk by Manu Ginobili.

So it was no surprise to see Shaquille O’Neal and the Heat being afforded all kinds of latitude against the Wizards, none more ludicrous than O’Neal throwing Brendan Haywood to the floor before blocking a follow-up attempt of Andray Blatche in the second quarter.

Not that the presence of Willard can explain the season-long shooting funk of Hayes.

That is assuming his 38.8 shooting percentage this season represents a funk. After all, his career shooting percentage was 39.8 going into the season.

Yet Jordan and Ernie Grunfeld always have insisted — usually when Hayes was injured the last two seasons — that the fourth-year player out of Georgia was something of a shooter.

That notion is becoming harder to maintain as Hayes remains in a stupefying state, the notable exception being his 21-point, nine-rebound performance in New Jersey earlier this week.

Nothing could fix what ails the Wizards, except the return of Butler, Jamison and the real Arenas, not the one who is hurting more than he cares to admit or whose body is being inhabited by a poor-shooting alien from James Carville’s planet.

This has not been about Xs and Os or player rotations or Roger Mason being provided with more minutes, as one of the call-in radio strategists suggested after the Wizards-Heat game.

This has been about a team that suffered with two All-Stars out of the lineup.

The Wizards have weathered these injury-induced crises in the past, whether it was the absence of Larry Hughes two seasons ago or Butler’s five-game absence late last season.

Perhaps more worrisome than the absence of Jamison and Butler was the shrinking capacity of Arenas, who has had something of a feast-or-famine season.

He is either hitting a walk-off, game-winning shot or putting up shooting numbers that would embarrass a youth league player.

Arenas was so flummoxed against the Heat that he was distributing the ball to Mason in the late going, hardly a reassuring sight with the Wizards needing a significant scoring run.

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