- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Gilbert Arenas participated in light noncontact drills yesterday, moving a step closer to his return following November knee surgery and giving the injury-plagued Washington Wizards some optimism entering the second half of the season.

Arenas, who has missed all but eight games this season, had set a return date of March 1.

All-Star forward Caron Butler also practiced and is a game-time decision for tonight’s home game against New York after missing eight of the last 10 games with a strained left hip flexor.

Meanwhile, center Etan Thomas — who has missed the entire season following heart surgery — was cleared to practice. Like Arenas, he did not take part in five-on-five segments. No date has been set for his return.

All are good signs for Washington, which entered the All-Star break in less than ideal condition. The Wizards (25-27) were nursing a variety of injuries and had lost eight straight before capping a four-game West Coast trip with a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday.

“I’m really excited,” All-Star forward Antawn Jamison said. “It’s been tough. … But hopefully Caron’s coming back [tonight], and Gil’s coming back in the next week or two, so we’re finally getting everybody back as a team.”

The Wizards went 1-3 on their prebreak road trip, but they played well in the last three of those games with Butler out and Antonio Daniels and DeShawn Stevenson also battling injuries. Washington lost by one at Phoenix, by three at Golden State and beat the Clippers on a last-second tip-in from Jamison.

“I’m very confident in this team for the simple fact on what we did on the West Coast,” Butler said. “And I think we matured out there a lot, and it showed when it came down for big plays in the last game against the Clippers. Brendan Haywood made a big one, Darius [Songaila] made a big one, Antonio — and Antawn was able to do what he does best: Make flick shots. He made a tough shot to win the game.”

The Wizards appear to get a break against the lowly Knicks (15-37) tonight, but another row of formidable opponents looms: at Cleveland on Friday, at home against Charlotte on Saturday and then games at New Orleans, Houston and Chicago.

Cleveland routed Washington 121-85 in the teams’ last meeting Jan. 23, and Charlotte (19-34) always seems to match up well with Washington, with both Wizards victories this season decided by four points or less.

From there the Wizards face New Orleans and Houston on consecutive nights before concluding February in Chicago. March then opens with home games against the Hornets, who own the best record in the West, and the Orlando Magic, whom the Wizards trail by seven games in the Southeast Division.

The Wizards are sixth in the Eastern Conference, but they know it could be tough down the stretch. New Jersey — 2½ games behind Washington — could receive a boost from the multiple pieces acquired from Dallas if the Jason Kidd trade goes through. And Jamison pointed out that Atlanta — also 2½ games behind Washington — likely will get a lift from the acquisition of point guard Mike Bibby.

But the Wizards know they control their second-half success.

“If we can just improve and get myself back out there and Gilbert and Etan, we can really make a push for it,” Butler said. “We have to continue to get better offensively, continue to get better defensively and continue to believe in the system. … Obviously we need to stay healthy, but that’s in God’s hand. Us as players need to go out there and leave it all on the court, and we can’t decide if injuries happen. We just have to keep playing how we’ve been playing.”

WIZARDS’ SECOND-HALF KEYS

1. Get healthy — When at full strength last season, the Wizards held the best record in the East for much of December and January and entered the All-Star break with the second-best mark in the conference. If Gilbert Arenas can regain his All-Star form, giving Washington another potent scorer, and if Caron Butler can heal up and play at the level that earned him his second straight All-Star appearance, then Washington can rise in the wide-open Eastern Conference.

2. Continue to defend — After four years of talking about it, the Wizards have put forth a better defensive effort this season. Part of the reason for that focus is the knowledge that Washington isn’t capable of simply outscoring opponents without Arenas. Once Agent Zero returns, the Wizards can’t revert to their old ways, because defense is what distinguishes Boston and Detroit from the rest of the East.

3. Bench play — The Wizards’ reserves have produced with the team’s stars hobbled. Antonio Daniels has averaged 9.9 points and 5.6 assists in 34 starts for Arenas, and Andray Blatche has averaged 13.4 points and 9.6 rebounds in place of Butler. Roger Mason Jr. has put up career-high numbers as the sixth man. And rookie Dominic McGuire appears to have found his role as a high-energy hustler and rebounder. But the younger Wizards players must continue to produce when called upon even if their minutes decrease. Depth also is a key to a strong playoff team.

Mike Jones

Today’s game

NEW YORK KNICKS AT WASHINGTON WIZARDS

When: 7 p.m.

Where: Verizon Center

TV/radio: CSN, AM-980

Probable starters: Knicks — F Quentin Richardson, F Zach Randolph, C Eddy Curry, G Jamal Crawford, G Fred Jones. Wizards — F Antawn Jamison, F Andray Blatche, C Brendan Haywood, G Antonio Daniels, G DeShawn Stevenson.

Injuries: Knicks — G Stephon Marbury (ankle). Wizards — F Caron Butler (hip), G Gilbert Arenas (knee), C Etan Thomas (heart surgery).

Outlook: Tonight’s game marks the third and final meeting between these teams. The Wizards are 1-1 against the Knicks. In their last meeting, Jamison led Washington to a 111-98 victory with 32 points. … Butler went through a full practice yesterday and is listed as a game-time decision. But Butler, who has missed the last five games, said he doesn’t feel pressure to rush back prematurely, citing his teammates’ ability to hold their own against much stronger opponents in Phoenix and Golden State last week as a source of encouragement. If Butler decides to wait another game, Blatche (13.4 points, 9.6 rebounds as a starter) will make his ninth start in the last two weeks.

Mike Jones

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