- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2008

The last time the Washington Wizards traveled to Cleveland, they were one of the NBA’s hottest teams.

They had won seven of their last nine. They were playing their best defense of the season, and despite the absence of star guard Gilbert Arenas, they owned a 22-17 record.

Then it all fell down.

Washington in that Jan. 23 meeting suffered its worst loss of the season, falling 121-85 to the Cavaliers. Since then, the Wizards — who return to Quicken Loans Arena tonight — have gone 3-11 while being hampered by a rash of injuries.

Forward Caron Butler has missed the last six games with a hip injury. Point guard Antonio Daniels has bone spurs in his right ankle, and a sore knee has slowed shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson.

As a result, the offensive firepower and the improved defense seen on that early January stretch have dwindled.

“There’s no sense of urgency,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “I understand, we all understand where we are. Our fans know. We know. Our owner knows. We’re doing the best we can.”

Throughout the trying stretch, Jordan has advised the team not to consider the losses as a streak. The coach instead describes each game as a singular event that has no impact on the matchup preceding or following.

And so the only source of motivation the Wizards are relying on is the memory of their last meeting in Cleveland and a desire to do much better this time around.

“Definitely one of the worst feelings we’ve had this year, knowing how well they’ve played against us in the past and for us to come up there and not play with the energy we needed to play, it was tough,” forward Antawn Jamison said. “Myself as the captain, I’ve just gotta set the tone and let guys know we are a good team and we’ve gotta get back to playing at the intensity level that we are a team.”

The Wizards (25-28) likely will be without Butler again. He, Daniels and Stevenson missed practice yesterday, but Jordan said Daniels likely will play, and he expects Stevenson to play although he’s “playing on one leg.”

Stevenson — who had missed back-to-back practices — said he felt great and was ready to go.

The Wizards refuse to use the injuries as an excuse, pointing out that they have been in each of their last five games late in the fourth quarter.

“A win wouldn’t solve it, but it’ll point us in the right direction,” Jamison said. “I don’t know the numbers, and I don’t want to know the numbers as far as how many games we’ve lost in the last so-and-so, but it hasn’t been good. But still saying that, we’re still in the sixth spot [in the East]. We’ve still got some teams we can catch to improve our position. … We lost some games. It happens, not to say you accept it, but you’ve gotta put it behind you. You have to get past it because of course nobody’s going to feel sorry [for] your losing or your situation.”

Stopping the new-look Cavaliers (30-24) — who acquired forwards Ben Wallace and Wally Szczerbiak and guard Delonte West at yesterday’s trade deadline — won’t be easy. Leading the way is LeBron James, who this season tops the NBA in scoring with 30.2 points a game. He also has posted triple-doubles in his last two outings, which came just days after he earned All-Star Game MVP honors for the second time in three seasons.

“We wanna play well. When we play well and do things correctly, we give ourselves a chance to win, and I think that’s where we’ve been most of the time,” Jordan said. “There’s a concept that we like to go into it with. We like to take LeBron’s touches away. We like to deny him, which is hard to do. We try to double him to cut down his scoring opportunities. We like to cut down scoring in the paint because he’s a great passer. … The third line of defense is their outside shooting. If they’re on, then we’re in a bad way. But if we can close out on them and make them miss, then we’ve got a pretty good game plan and may be in the game.”

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