- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Frustrated by his team’s lackluster effort, Washington Wizards coach Flip Saunders made a bold move early in the second half by benching all five of his starters for most of third quarter.

It worked.

Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler combined for 22 points in the fourth quarter to spearhead a late-game comeback as the Wizards beat the Philadelphia 76ers 105-98 Tuesday night at Verizon Center.

“To the credit of the guys that got taken out, they were upset at the time, but they came back in and played as hard as they have in the last three or four games,” Saunders said. “As a coach, you have to do what you think you have to do.”

The Wizards led throughout the first half but had two turnovers in their first three possessions of the second half and seemed uninterested in playing defense as Philadelphia quickly grabbed its first lead after a Thaddeus Young three-point play. When a timeout didn’t change the Wizards’ fortunes, Saunders took out all five of his starters in one fell swoop.

“It was needed,” Arenas said. “We didn’t have the energy that we should have coming out of the half. The third [quarter] is usually the most important part of the game. We weren’t giving it, and the second unit had to come in and do something.”

The combination of Earl Boykins, Nick Young, Dominic McGuire, Andray Blatche and Fabricio Oberto played the final 7:58 of the third quarter and picked up the intensity. Boykins directed the unit and ended up staying in for the fourth quarter. Young hit a pair of 3-pointers. And McGuire grabbed three offensive rebounds.

“The younger guys had been down a little bit, and it was an opportunity to step up and be a part of this team,” Young said. “It just shows anybody can start.”

The group couldn’t close the gap, however - Philadelphia led 79-72 entering the fourth - but then Arenas and Butler took over as Washington outscored Philadelphia 33-19 in the final quarter.

The scenario for the Wizards was simple. The 76ers (7-21) didn’t have anybody to slow Arenas, and when he was aggressive on the offensive end, the Wizards were in control. When the star point guard was passive or on the bench, Philadelphia made its runs.

Arenas did most of his damage in the first and fourth quarters. In the first, he hit an array of jumpers to give Washington (9-17) an early lead. And in the fourth, he continually attacked the basket to lead the comeback. Arenas finished with 31 points on 13-for-24 shooting and added eight rebounds.

He only had a pair of assists, but one of them was a pretty pass to Butler for an emphatic dunk that gave Washington a 96-90 lead with 4:25 left and the emotional lift it needed to close out the victory.

Butler had 10 of his 14 points in the fourth quarter while hounding Philadelphia’s best player, Andre Iguodala. The high-flying Arizona product was limited to 10 points.

“We played off each other - me, [Butler] and Earl,” Arenas said. “Caron hit the layup, and then I hit him with the backdoor cut, he got the dunk and from there we just made plays.”

Arenas scored the game’s first seven points and had 15 in the first quarter. He had 17 total early in the second when Saunders took him out for the first time. Washington’s lead peaked at 11 points, though the 76ers gradually crept back into the game thanks to the effort of Elton Brand and Jason Kapono off the bench.

Arenas returned with 5:01 left in the half but didn’t take a shot as Philadelphia trimmed the Wizards’ lead to 47-44 at halftime. He took just two shots in the second quarter and finished the half with 17 points. After the letdown in the third, Arenas finished his night with a dozen points in the fourth.

“I just kept the confidence that I had going coming from the West Coast,” Arenas said. “All it takes is a couple games to get somebody going. I found it out west, and hopefully I keep it going.”

It was a much-needed win for the Wizards, who had lost seven of eight - including three of four on the West Coast trip - and immediately returned to the road for a three-game trip that starts Wednesday night in Milwaukee.

“There can’t be any excuses, there can’t be any letdowns whatsoever,” Antawn Jamison said. “We can’t make excuses for not being mentally ready for back-to-backs or anything like that.”

• Mike Fratto can be reached at mfratto@washingtontimes.com.

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