- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2009

The Washington Wizards started the new year on a positive note Thursday by practicing with rigor after a day off, and back with them was leading scorer Caron Butler.

The All-Star swingman, who this season is averaging 21 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists, had missed the last three games after he sprained his left ankle Christmas Day at Cleveland. He tested the ankle out before each of the last two games but couldn’t put any weight on it or change directions.

After an additional day off, Butler again tested the ankle, and it responded positively. He participated in the Wizards’ entire 90-minute practice session Thursday with little limitation.

“It felt decent. A little stiff, a little sore,” Butler said. “But I’ll give it a go tomorrow. I got a lot of rest, and it feels much better. I plan on playing tomorrow, definitely.”

Wizards coach Ed Tapscott said Butler and the team’s medical staff first must see how his ankle responds to a full practice and then the flight to Boston on Thursday evening, but he hopes Butler will return for Friday’s game against the Celtics.

“I always feel better and we always look better when [Butler] is out on the floor,” Tapscott said. “He didn’t seem to have any ill effects, and certainly it didn’t seem like there was anything wrong with his right arm.”

The Wizards’ optimism is beginning to build because of Butler’s return and their two victories in the last three games. And even in their two most recent losses at Cleveland and New Orleans, they remained in contention until late in the game.

“I like what we have established the last couple of games, so hopefully I can just come in and fill that void and hopefully give us enough to give us some victories,” Butler said. “From the Cleveland game on out, you saw a lot of assists, guys trusting the offense, posting up, working it from inside out. Our basketball energy, our life, is back. Guys are running up the court high-fiving, showing a lot of energy and being enthused about the game.”

Butler said the 6-24 Wizards reached their lowest point during their eight-game losing streak last month and the skid sparked their improvement.

“I think you can see with this team, we went through a lot of down time together,” he said. “And now guys are really starting to trust and believe in the system that the coaching staff has put in.”

Tapscott said if the positives continue and the team refines a few key areas, Washington’s rebound will begin sooner rather than later.

“I would hope that we would see some progress - we’ve put in a lot of work,” said Tapscott, who has a 5-14 record since taking over as interim coach Nov. 24. “So I’m certainly happy to see some progress in those areas. I’m delighted to see the energy level go up and the execution start to sharpen. The type of team that we are, we’re going to play a lot of close games, so we need to learn how to execute in the real meat of the game.”

Note - Center Brendan Haywood has had the cast off his surgically repaired right wrist since Dec. 22, but he said Thursday he hasn’t begun rehabilitation because doctors haven’t removed a pin that was placed in his wrist during the October surgery to repair a torn ligament. Haywood, who now wears a plastic brace, will have the pin removed next week.

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