- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The playoff fate of the Washington Wizards comes down to the final three weeks and 13 games of the regular season.

The Wizards on Monday dropped to second place in the Southeast Division behind the Miami Heat, thanks in large part to a 1-4 road trip through the Western Conference that ended with a loss to the Utah Jazz.

The Wizards (37-32) trail the Heat by a half-game and return home tonight to face the Philadelphia 76ers, hoping that ailing All-Star forward Caron Butler will return to the lineup and give a lift to a team that has dropped seven of its last 10 games.

The loss to the Jazz concluded what has been a tough eight weeks for Washington.

The Wizards held the best record in the Eastern Conference on Jan. 30. They defeated the Detroit Pistons that night, earning a victory that left them a season-high 10 games above .500 and 71/2 games ahead of the Heat.

But forward Antawn Jamison suffered a sprained knee against the Pistons that forced him to miss the next 12 games, and the Wizards have struggled badly since. The Wizards went 4-8 in the 12 games Jamison missed between Jan. 31 and March 2 and have yet to stabilize.

Their troubles worsened with the absence of Butler.

Butler, a first-time All Star this season, hasn’t played since the second quarter of the Wizards’ win over the Indiana Pacers on March 14, a game he left because of a stiff knee.

The Wizards have gone just 2-4 since, a span that includes the current string of three straight losses.

Butler did not make the trip to the West Coast with the team. Instead, he remained in the District to work out and strengthen his knee, which is not sprained and an MRI revealed to be structurally sound.

Butler hopes to be in the lineup tonight against the 76ers, but that will be a game-time decision.

“Overall I feel great,” Butler said. “Mentally and physically I feel good. I went through some drills today, and we’ll see how I feel tomorrow. I am just anxious to get back on the court.”

Just how precarious the Wizards’ situation is these days was crystallized during a road trip on which they lost first place in the division even though the Heat suffered back-to-back losses to the Pacers and 76ers.

The Wizards over the past week faced some of the weakest competition the West has to offer: Two of their four losses came against teams (Portland and Seattle) that would be in the lottery if the season ended today, and a third came against a Golden State Warriors team that currently ranks as the eighth seed in the West.

The Wizards could retake the lead in the Southeast tonight with a win over the 76ers and a Toronto victory over Miami.

Washington faces a team with a winning record in only of four its remaining 13 games.

What could weigh most heavily in the Wizards’ favor has been their strength at home, where their 25-9 record is second in the East only to Chicago’s 27-9 record at United Center.

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