- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

For much of January, the Washington Wizards were one of the NBA’s hottest teams, going on a 9-4 stretch that included consecutive wins over the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics and a handy defeat of the Dallas Mavericks, one of the top teams in the West.

But the magic has ended.

Short-handed with Gilbert Arenas still rehabilitating from a second knee surgery and now with Caron Butler recovering from a strained left hip flexor, the Wizards find themselves on a five-game skid and in their worst physical state of the season.

To make matters worse, Washington is about to embark on its toughest stretch of the year: a four-game, six-day Western Conference road trip against high-scoring, run-and-gun teams.

The Wizards (24-24) begin tonight against the Nuggets and then play the Suns — possibly sporting a new look with the acquisition of Shaquille O’Neal — on Sunday.

From there the Wizards head to Oakland to take on Golden State on Monday, then to Los Angeles to play the Clippers on Wednesday.

“The teams we’re playing are similar,” Wizards forward Antawn Jamison said. “They like to run, get up to a fast pace. It’s a big challenge for us, but the thing about this team is we’ve been in this situation before with our backs against the wall. We just have to make the most out of it. We have to understand that these four games are very important and leave it all out there on the court.”

Said center Brendan Haywood: “We just need to get some wins. It doesn’t matter where it is. Once you step on the court, basketball’s basketball. The courts are the same length. Hoops are the same height. It’s all about staying focused and taking care of business.”

Finding an offensive boost will be key for the Wizards.

Phoenix, Golden State and Denver are three of the four highest-scoring teams in the league. The Suns average 109.8 points a game, edging the Warriors (109.6) for the NBA’s top spot. The Nuggets rank fourth with 106.5 points. The Clippers — the only team on the stretch with a losing record — average 94.4 points. (sixth worst in the league).

For the season, Washington ranks 14th in the league in scoring with 98.1 points a game. But the Wizards have plummeted to an average of 86.8 points while allowing 101.4 during their 0-5 skid.

“You knew throughout the course of this season that we would come to a point like this — where we lose two, three, four in a row,” said point guard Antonio Daniels, who has gutted his way through knee and ankle injuries. “Now it’s character time. It’s time to show the type of character that we really have as a team. Not to point the finger. It’s nobody’s fault. We just have to find a way to get through it together, and we’ll be fine.”

A big reason for the offensive plunge has been the absence of Butler, who led the team with 21.4 points and 4.5 assists in Arenas’ absence. The Wizards remain unsure when Butler will return, but he is making the trip with them.

Without Butler, the weight of the scoring falls upon Jamison, who for the season is averaging 21.2 points, but his production has dipped to 19.4 points during the losing streak.

Third-year man Andray Blatche has averaged 16.5 points in four starts filling in for Butler, but that has left coach Eddie Jordan with fewer options off the bench.

“In the back of my mind, I’m always looking for my substitution rotation to give some guys a break, to match up to them and to get a group that has chemistry, that knows what they’re doing,” Jordan said. “I’m trying to get some guys a break with [rookie forward/center] Oleksiy Pecherov, who’s very young and very new and gonna have breakdowns, and [rookie guard] Nick [Young], who’s very young and gonna have breakdowns. So you can rely and trust maybe a select few.”

The Wizards turned in a solid effort Wednesday night in an 85-77 home loss to the San Antonio Spurs. But one aspect aiding them was the fact the Spurs prefer to slow the game’s pace and execute out of halfcourt sets.

Although fully aware of the daunting task ahead of them, the Wizards remain optimistic, hoping to gain some momentum before next week’s All-Star break. They refer to a four-game road trip in December 2006 that began with them sporting an 11-11 record. The Wizards went 3-1 on the tour to the Lakers, Nuggets, Kings and Suns and finished the month four games above .500.

“It’s a great opportunity to get back on track,” Daniels said. “When you’re on the road and that camaraderie’s there for a long road trip, the opportunity’s there to get back the chemistry and camaraderie we had a little bit ago. We just have to be efficient. We don’t have to complicate the game. Keep it simple, continue to play off each other, make each other better and we’ll be fine. We have enough in this locker room to win games. We’ve proven that.”

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