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Arenas' progress gives Wizards hope

January 06, 2009|By HOWARD FENDRICH

WASHINGTON - Everywhere Caron Butler looks, he finds reason for optimism.

Huh? His Washington Wizards are 7-25 and last in an Eastern Conference where no other team has fewer than 12 victories. Still, consider what's been happening lately:

* Gilbert Arenas is showing "signs of progress," interim coach Ed Tapscott said Monday, as the three-time All-Star point guard works his way back from a third operation on his left knee.

* The Wizards have won three of their past five games, capped by Sunday's 80-77 upset of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

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* Having started the season 0-10 in games decided by seven or fewer points, Washington has won its past two such contests.

* After traveling to play Dwight Howard's Southeast Division-leading Orlando Magic on Tuesday, Washington moves into a soft stretch of its schedule, with eight consecutive games against teams that entered Monday three games below .500 or worse. So far, 20 of Washington's 32 games were against teams who currently have winning records.

"We went through our trying times early, and I feel like we can really pull this thing together," Butler said. "Seeing Gilbert on the court moving around, looking good - that gives us another sense of hope, as well."

No one seems to know - or is willing to say - when Arenas will start practicing, let alone return to the lineup. He hasn't played in a game this season after having surgery in September, his third in 1 1/2 years on that knee.

But Arenas has started playing some 2-on-2 with teammates.

"He can shoot and cut, so that obviously shows signs of progress," Tapscott told The Associated Press. "But the medical staff will determine when he'll be able to step that up."

Team president Ernie Grunfeld wrote in an e-mail to the AP that he expects Arenas to play this season, although he still won't offer a guess as to when that might be. Based on what he's shown recently, Washington's players figure Arenas will be back in uniform "a lot quicker than later," as co-captain Antawn Jamison put it.

"We all know Gil. We all know how Gil likes to do things. So I guess he's been in the Bat Cave, working with - what's the butler's name? - Alfred," Jamison said. "He looks good, from what I've seen. But I don't know a timetable or how healthy he is."

Tapscott spoke about being "conservative" with Arenas, who twice tried to come back last season before having to shut himself down.

"We want to make sure that when he's back in form, he's perfectly in form, and we have no setbacks," said Tapscott, who took over a 1-10 team when he replaced fired coach Eddie Jordan. "That way, you just reduce the risk."

Typically, Tapscott said, a player needs about a week to 10 days of practice to get up to game speed after a lengthy absence. He then noted, though, that "certain guys defy conventional logic, so we'll play it by ear."

Washington also has been without Brendan Haywood all season after he had surgery on his wrist, but the 7-foot center was out on the court after Monday's practice, working on shooting with his left hand. That is another good sign, according to Butler, as is the progress made by the Wizards' younger players, including Andray Blatche (averaging 9.5 points, 5.1 rebounds) and Dominic McGuire (first NBA double-double Sunday), who both have been added to the starting lineup.

"Needless to say, we think we're getting better, improving," Tapscott said. "The young guys are getting experience."

His team has been running less - and scoring less - but also playing stingier defense. The Cavaliers, for example, were held to season lows in points and shooting percentage (39.4).

Butler thinks that victory could be "the thing - or THE game - that can get us going."

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