- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2009

As if the Washington Wizards weren’t short-handed enough, the team was dealt yet another crippling blow on Tuesday.

Washington (9-35) learned starting center Andray Blatche will miss two to four weeks as he rests a strained left knee.

Blatche, who’s enjoying a career season with 10.1 points and 5.3 rebounds a game, banged knees with Shaquille O’Neal with 4:11 left in the Wizards’ 103-87 loss to Phoenix on Monday.

After colliding with O’Neal, who’s listed at 325 pounds but appears much heavier, Blatche collapsed and rolled on the floor in pain for several minutes before being helped up and then hopping down a back hallway.

“It was the scariest thing ever,” Blatche said. “All I know is we hit and I just went flying. I don’t know if he hit me, pushed me, what happened. I just felt the pain in my leg and went flying into the crowd.”

Blatche, who suffered a large bruise on the inside of his knee and thigh, thought he could play at Miami on Wednesday. But he woke up Tuesday feeling worse, and an MRI on his knee revealed the strain.

Blatche is the third center the Wizards have lost to injury. Starting center Brendan Haywood tore a ligament in his right wrist in training camp and required surgery, and Etan Thomas tore his left MCL on Jan. 12.

Thomas’ injury often requires surgery and a recovery of up to four months, but the Wizards’ medical team doesn’t think that will be necessary, according to Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld. After resting his knee the last two weeks, Thomas was re-evaluated Tuesday, and Grunfeld said the torn MCL - which is less severe than a torn ACL - is almost like a bad strain and it likely will heal itself.

“We’re hopeful that he’ll return this year, but it’s just going to have to be re-evaluated over time, and we’ll see how it goes,” Grunfeld said.

Coach Ed Tapscott said he’s roughly two to four weeks away from resuming running. The knee will be evaluated at that point, and “then it will probably be another two weeks before he practices,” Tapscott said.

The Wizards now have just one healthy center on the roster - rookie JaVale McGee, who has started 13 games this season. But McGee, averaging 5.6 points and 3.6 rebounds in 13.9 minutes, has seen his minutes vary since Blatche replaced in him in the starting lineup last month.

“It’s tough, but I just try to continue to work hard so I’ll be ready whenever they call me,” McGee said last week.

Tapscott said he hadn’t decided whether he would start McGee in Miami or forward Darius Songaila, who has filled in at center the last two seasons. Songaila made one start at center earlier this month when Blatche sat for disciplinary reasons and recorded eight points and five rebounds in 22 minutes.

The Wizards also could play second-year forward Oleksiy Pecherov, a 7-foot 3-point specialist, at center, though he has played only 67 minutes all season.

“I don’t know about more pressure. I think we’ve been under that same pressure - short-handed - the whole season,” Songaila said. “Obviously, with Andray being out, it’s going to be a bit harder. But at the same time, it’ll give a chance to JaVale, [Pecherov] and myself [to get] more minutes and help them get more comfortable with playing. There shouldn’t be pressure to perform well. There’s nothing we can lose. Just go out there and play your heart out… perform and do what you do.”

Note - Shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson, who hasn’t played since Dec. 30 because of a pinched nerve in his back, practiced for the first time this month Tuesday and said he felt good. He hopes to return to action Friday night in Philadelphia.

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