- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

The Washington Wizards limp into this weekend’s All-Star break, losers of eight of their last nine games and with a sizable collection of bumps, bruises and nicks.

Leading scorer Gilbert Arenas is still out after having knee surgery in November.

Second-leading scorer Caron Butler has missed eight of the last 10 games with a strained left hip flexor and had to withdraw from Sunday’s All-Star Game.

Point guard Antonio Daniels, who has started 34 games in place of Arenas, missed two games this week with bone spurs in his right ankle and has played on a sore knee.

Shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson has played on a sore left knee, and several other teammates also are banged up.

If ever a team needed the All-Star break to heal and recharge, it’s the Wizards, who concluded a four-game West Coast trip by ending an eight-game losing streak with a 91-89 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night.

But despite all the injuries and the recent struggles, the Wizards enter the second half of the season with a sense of optimism.

Although they have a 25-27 record, the Wizards remain in the playoff picture. They would own the Eastern Conference’s sixth playoff spot if the regular season ended today.

“It’s been a tough situation,” team president Ernie Grunfeld said of the Wizards’ trying month. “But [coach Eddie Jordan] has still put our players in the position to be competitive and in a positive situation. It’s not usual to lose eight straight games and still be in the position we’re in. So Eddie and his coaching staff definitely deserve a lot of credit.”

Although they would’ve preferred to have all their pieces healthy during the first half of the season, the Wizards realize they have received a blessing in disguise.

Without Arenas, Daniels was forced to start, which opened the opportunity for young backups Roger Mason Jr. and Nick Young to see more minutes in the backcourt.

Third-year player Andray Blatche had served almost exclusively as starting center Brendan Haywood’s backup until Butler went down. Blatche then slid over into a starting forward spot and averaged 13.6 points and 9.1 rebounds as a starter.

With Blatche starting, rookies Dominic McGuire and Oleksiy Pecherov saw more time off the bench.

The Wizards went from being a team with a veteran starting lineup and — outside of Daniels — a relatively inexperienced bench, to a battle-tested squad.

“I think it’s positive that our younger players have gotten this game-type experience,” Grunfeld said. “And to their credit, they’ve competed. … First we’ve gotta get everybody back, but I think we’ve shown that when healthy, we can compete with anyone. I have a lot of confidence in our team. I see us contending in the playoffs.”

Butler is expected to return some time next week. The Wizards will resume play at home against the New York Knicks on Tuesday, visit Cleveland on Friday and play host to Charlotte on Saturday. They close out February with back-to-back games in New Orleans and Houston on the 25th and 26th and play at Chicago on the 29th.

The team has set a “loose sort of date” for Arenas’ return according to Jordan. That will give Washington a boost to the tune of 22.4 points, 5.9 assists and 2.13 steals.

Arenas has established himself as a player capable of taking over games down the stretch and lifting his team with buzzer-beating shots. Butler proved this season that he also is capable of going on similar unstoppable stretches, which will make it harder for teams to key solely on Arenas.

The NBA trade deadline is Thursday, and Grunfeld said he expects to be approached by teams interested in making deals. But Grunfeld indicated he’s satisfied with the roster he has assembled.

“We’ve got people coming back [from injury] and even without Gilbert, we are a competitive ball club,” he said. “We beat Boston back-to-back and Dallas a few days later. So I’m looking forward to getting all our pieces together again.”

So the Wizards as a whole believe the second half of the season will feature a more dangerous, well-rounded and confident team. And considering what they’ve accomplished in spite of their limitations, they believe their best basketball remains ahead of them.

“We get everybody back, and it’s gonna be a big boost,” said center Brendan Haywood, who is averaging career highs in points (10.7) and rebounds (7.6). “Last year when we had everybody healthy, we had one of the best records in the Eastern Conference. And this year we’re playing a little better defensively, too. So, hopefully, we get everybody back and it can translate into a big run down the stretch.”

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