- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2007

In his return to the lineup Wednesday night against Philadelphia, Caron Butler scored 21 points — the most for the Washington Wizards All-Star since he had 25 on Feb. 22.

In their 111-108 win over the 76ers, the Wizards also got a season-high 28 points from the suddenly more aggressive DeShawn Stevenson, 18 of them in the first half.

But when coach Eddie Jordan began naming the things he deemed most important to the victory — which ended the Wizards’ three-game losing streak and pushed them back into the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race and atop the Southeast Division by half a game — he cited the play of the bench.

After a sluggish first quarter by the starters other than Stevenson, Jordan turned to his reserves for a spark, and they responded. Down by 10 points in the first quarter, Jordan inserted Antonio Daniels, Jarvis Hayes and Darius Songaila and got good results, particularly from Daniels, who notched all of his team-high six assists in the quarter.

The Wizards (38-32), who can take over the third seed in the East with a win tonight over Atlantic Division leader Toronto (39-32), followed that up with a 30-point second quarter and ultimately had enough to win.

“I am very happy with the way our bench has been playing on the road trip and last night,” Jordan said. “We have veterans that are flexible and can do different things. Darius can play at the five. He can play out on the perimeter, and he can play on the post. Jarvis has played guard as well as a small forward, and when he’s at forward, Antonio can come in and kick the ball out to people. It has been a very good thing.”

Washington’s bench has had its ups and downs all season, with Songaila losing 45 games to back surgery, Hayes’ offensive slump and the multiple midseason benchings of Daniels. But the Wizards have seen signs recently that the deep veteran bench they envisioned at the start of the season is starting to come around.

The reserves were one of the few bright signs on their just completed 1-4 road trip. The bench hit its peak in a 135-128 loss at Golden State. In that game Daniels, Songaila and Hayes combined for 42 points (the reserves contributed a season-high 50), 11 assists and 10 rebounds.

Earlier this month against the Raptors, the bench contributed 48 points in a runaway 129-109 Washington rout.

“The more you play with each other, the better chemistry you get, the better feel you have for each other.” Daniels said. “We’ve been playing with each other more these days, and we’re starting to get more comfortable with each other. It’s happening at a good time.”

Songaila agreed.

“We’re playing together more and the rotation is getting in place,” he said. “You learn each other, what the other guys like to do, what kind of shot a guy is looking for and where he likes the ball. Our starters have it, and we’re starting to get it, too.”

While the Wizards appear to be getting healthy for the stretch run, the same is not true of the Raptors. On Wednesday, Toronto dispatched Miami 96-83 without key reserve forwards Andrea Bargnani (out for the season after an appendectomy) and Jorge Garbajosa (ankle surgery). Together they averaged 20.0 points and 8.8 rebounds.

The Wizards have struggled this season against opponents without key players — something Antawn Jamison hopes to guard against tonight.

“I don’t understand it: Teams have been without their key guys, and they’ve still found a way to get it done against us,” Jamison said. “Toronto is a dangerous team. They like to do a lot of things. They are missing two guys, but it’s very important that we play them like they are at full strength.”

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