- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2008

HOUSTON — When the Washington Wizards left Houston yesterday following Tuesday night’s 94-69 thumping by the Rockets, they hoped to put behind them the shooting woes that cost them a shot at winning a third straight game for the first time since Jan. 14.

And they shifted their focus to tomorrow night’s matchup in Chicago, which will wrap up a three-game road trip and conclude a trying February.

“It should be good,” shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson said of the two-day preparation gap. “But at the same time, you want to have a break off a win, so we want to get back our sense of urgency to go out and play Chicago, and hopefully we win that game and go 2-1 on this trip.

“It’d be big, especially all the stuff we’ve been going through. I know we’ve had a lot of doubters, that didn’t think we’d win one game, so to go 2-1 would be real big.”

A winning record on this trip would give the Wizards a much-needed boost and indicate they are finding a way to get back on track. After an impressive January, in which they won seven of their first nine games, including consecutive victories over conference leader Boston, the Wizards lost 12 of 15 games, including eight straight from Jan. 30 to Feb. 11.

The struggles coincided with the loss of All-Star forward Caron Butler, who has missed 10 straight games with what the team believed was a strained left hip flexor, and 13 of the last 15. But upon receiving results of further testing, Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld announced yesterday that Butler — who didn’t travel with the Wizards this week in hopes that as little activity as possible would expedite his recovery — actually has a small labral tear of the left hip joint, which explains why he felt his hip locking up, or catching when trying to run.

Recent medical research has shown that labral tears are more common in athletes than once thought. And when contacted yesterday, Butler said he was feeling good and making progress, but that he will continue to rest until his hip feels better. Butler won’t play in Chicago, or in the Wizards’ home game against the Hornets on Sunday. But the team’s medical staff will re-evaluate his status next week, which is a more encouraging sign than if they said they’d wait a few weeks to do so.

The Wizards appeared to have figured out how to compensate for the absence of Butler’s 21.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists when they beat Charlotte by 15 points Saturday and stunned New Orleans at the buzzer Monday night.

But a poor first half spelled doom for Washington in Houston. The Wizards shot 21.3 percent from the field, fell behind 51-23 at halftime and never recovered.

The Wizards refused to use fatigue from playing in New Orleans and Houston in a span of 30 hours as a factor in the loss.

“I have too much respect for our opponent,” coach Eddie Jordan said. “I have too much respect for Coach [Rick] Adelman and what he can do and their players. So I’m not gonna say it was fatigue. This is the NBA; you’ve got to respond. That’s why you have 12 players — well, we have 10 — but other guys have to step in and perform. That’s what they did. … So, I have too much respect to say it was just our undoing. They did a great job.”

Jordan and his players — who with a win tomorrow can continue to remain two games ahead of New Jersey for the Eastern Conference’s sixth playoff spot — aim against Chicago to return to the form they showed Monday as four starters scored in double figures and Roger Mason Jr. added 12 off the bench.

They consider their play against Charlotte and New Orleans more reflective of their condition than the Houston loss, citing their ability to hang with quality opponents even without Butler. In the four road defeats before Tuesday, which came against playoff teams from the West — Denver, Phoenix and Golden State — and last year’s Eastern Conference champion Cleveland, the Wizards lost by an average of just four points.

“With the exception of tonight [against Houston], we’ve been in games, just come up short,” said Antawn Jamison, who is averaging 21.1 points and 10.3 rebounds. “We’ve got to treat this game as one of the most important games of the season. We know Chicago is trying to get things on the up and up and they’re back home with some of the new guys. It’s about the history between the two teams. It’d be a success if we can come out of this road trip 2-1 instead of 1-2. This is very important.”

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