- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2009

With a redeeming victory against their archnemeses, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Washington Wizards finally are beginning to feel a sense of progress and optimism.

As they prepared for Tuesday night’s game at Orlando, the Wizards seemed to believe that perhaps it’s a bit premature to count them out of the postseason.

“I said yesterday that [win] could be the difference-maker for the season,” captain Caron Butler said Monday about the Wizards’ third win in their last five games. “I’ve always been [told] what I couldn’t do in life and what I couldn’t do on the basketball court, and now here I stand a two-time All-Star and successful in life as well. There are things you can accomplish through adversity. We went through our trying times early, and I really feel like we can pull this thing together.”

Further boosting the Wizards’ spirits was the increased activity during practice of franchise player Gilbert Arenas, who for the second time in three days took part in two-on-two pickup games and displayed the ability both to cut and knock down jumpers.

“Seeing Gilbert on the court moving around gives us a new hope also,” Butler said. “And now what we’ve built with the young guys, getting more established - you see Dominic [McGuire] with his first double-double - things are really starting to turn for this franchise.”

Another step in the right direction would be beating the Magic, who lead the Southeast Division with a 26-8 record and are 14-3 at home. In two meetings, the Wizards (7-25) have suffered defeats of 25 and 15 points - first in Orlando, then in the District.

The Wizards hope they have improved since then. Unlike in those games - both in November - Butler said the Wizards’ individual roles are more clearly defined, so he and his teammates are playing with more certainty. A greater focus and an ability to learn from their mistakes also will go a long way to the Wizards righting themselves.

“The thing that jumps into my head is how have they been able to manhandle us the last two games? What did we do poorly, and how do we make sure those things don’t happen again?” forward Antawn Jamison said. “We’ve got to play smart. Both times we played [Orlando], we have to defend because they’ve been coming out from the get-go, scoring at will. We have to do a better job on the boards, and we have to make them play defense. …

“We have to set the tone early and let them know we’re not going to back down.”

If the Wizards can knock off the Magic, it will put them in position to pick up a few more victories during an upcoming stretch of eight games against teams with losing records.

“A win would be real crucial, especially the two games we played against them - the way they pretty much handled us,” Jamison said. “For us to go on the road and find a way to [beat] a pretty good team that’s been playing on all cylinders at home would be great.

“So [to] find a way to get this one [Tuesday] and then [come] back home and play some teams whose record is not that great would give us some confidence to string some wins together.”

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