Butler, Wizards land in playoffs

Wizards 104 Cavaliers 92


WASHINGTON -- Caron Butler was given a thunderous ovation by the fans at Verizon Center when he returned to the starting lineup last night for the Washington Wizards.

It was, in retrospect, a greeting worthy of someone who had been sorely missed.

Butler, whose absence because of a badly sprained right thumb coincided with the team's five-game losing streak, served as a stopper for the Wizards in a 104-92 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Not only did the win stop what had tied the team's longest losing streak of the season, but it also ended any speculation that the Wizards might miss the playoffs.

With the victory, Washington (40-40) became the eighth and final team in the Eastern Conference to qualify, following the Chicago Bulls (39-41) by a few hours as well as the Indiana Pacers (39-41) and the Milwaukee Bucks (39-41) by a day.

Gilbert Arenas led the Wizards with 35 points, and Butler added 21 points and eight rebounds. LeBron James scored 17 points for Cleveland and sat out the last 14 1/2 minutes in a move determined before the game by first-year Cavaliers coach Mike Brown.

It was Butler's presence that lifted his teammates as much as his points and rebounds. Though Cleveland (48-32) seemed to be going through the motions, especially on defense, the Wizards played with an energy that was lacking when Butler was on the bench.

"We kind of rallied around Caron," Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. "His confidence, his toughness, his production on the floor, was probably the most important thing. We played a team that I thought wanted to make a statement tonight and we weren't going to have it tonight."

The only statement the Cavaliers seemed to make was not to have James aggravate the ankle he sprained last week or Larry Hughes reinjure the finger he broke that caused him to miss 45 games.

"I'm just glad we got out of here without anybody getting hurt," Brown said. "I don't know if it was the right thing to do, but I told guys before the game that their minutes would be limited. I'm not taking anything away from Washington, but it looked like our guys were coming out after the first three minutes."

With the win, the Wizards moved back into the fifth spot and could solidify that position by winning tomorrow here against the Bucks and Wednesday at Detroit.

By finishing fifth, Washington would meet Cleveland in the opening best-of-seven series. Jordan made it clear that he didn't plan to rest his key players the last two games.

"We want to win; we want to hold onto fifth," Jordan said.

After giving the Wizards an 88-62 lead with a three-point shot just before the third-quarter buzzer, Butler also helped stop a 15-0 run by the Cavaliers to start the fourth quarter.

On a night when he missed 13 of 21 shots, the three-pointer was a big confidence boost for Butler.

"Once I hit that three, I felt very comfortable out there again," Butler said.

It marks the first time in 18 years that the Wizards qualified for the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. A year ago, as the No. 5 seed, Washington beat Chicago in six games before being swept by the Miami Heat.

The feeling was far different from last season, when the Wizards ended an eight-year playoff drought. Confetti fell from the ceiling of the MCI Center and long-suffering owner Abe Pollin addressed the team in its dressing room.

Last night there seemed to be more relief than elation.

"I felt relief, but I felt happy for our team," Jordan said. "We had some heartbreaking losses [during the losing streak], but we still stayed together. The basic human principle that you try, try, try again until you succeed, and that's what we did tonight."

Someone asked Butler how good it felt to be back, and addressed him as "LeBron." Butler smiled.

"I played that good?" he said.


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