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Posted Feb 19 2007 1:30PM
Although the Washington Wizards have their latest division lead in 28 years, their top player struggled as they stumbled into the All-Star break.
The Wizards look to get back on track in their first game after the break when they face the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night at the Verizon Center.
Washington (29-21) had a 1 1/2-game lead over Detroit for first place in the Eastern Conference on Jan. 30, but lost four of its next six games to drop 2 1/2 behind the Pistons and Cleveland into third place.
Despite the slide, the Wizards still have a 3 1/2-game lead over Orlando for the Southeast Division lead. This is the latest into the season the franchise has led its division since winning the Atlantic in 1978-79 - when the team was known as the Bullets.
All-Star Gilbert Arenas has been the key to the Wizards' success, but the high-scoring guard slumped along with his team heading into the break.
Washington leads the East with 105.8 points per game, but is averaging only 96.2 in its last six contests. The Wizards, who defeated Philadelphia 92-85 on Wednesday, are averaging 82.7 points on 36.8 percent shooting in their last three games.
Arenas' 28.8-point average is second-best in the NBA, but he's scored 19.0 points per contest and shot 25-for-79 (31.6 percent) over his last four games. His 3-point shooting has been very off, as he's hit only 18.4 percent (9-of-49) from beyond the arc in his last six.
"When I look back, it's always at the end of the season, never in the middle,'' Arenas said. "I know I need to turn it up a tune, get my shot back on target, get my feet right, get ready for the second half to start off on a positive note.''
Wizards coach Eddie Jordan thought the grueling first half finally caught up to Arenas, who had eight points and shot 2-of-7 from 3-point range in the East's 153-132 loss to the West in Sunday's All-Star game.
"I see a little bit of fatigue in Gil," Jordan said after the victory over the 76ers.
Arenas rejected the idea that he's been tired.
"I don't feel it, but sometimes when I'm shooting, I'm like, 'Am I using my legs?' After the All-Star break, my confidence will come back on my shot," he said. "I'll be ready to go."
Although Arenas has struggled lately, he was sharp against the Timberwolves (25-27) last season. He scored 67 points in the two meetings and shot 7-of-12 from 3-point range, while recording 10 rebounds and 10 assists.
Washington and Minnesota split those two games, but the Wizards have won seven of their last 10 at home in the series.
The Wizards, though, have had trouble at the Verizon Center of late. After winning 17 of their first 20 at home this season, the Wizards have dropped four of six there.
The Timberwolves have lost four straight on the road and eight of nine. Minnesota, though, defeated Denver 99-94 on Wednesday to give it three victories in four games heading into the break, moving it into eighth place in the West.
"We've been inconsistent throughout the year, so to back up our words is very important now especially now that we have this (All-Star) break," guard Rashad McCants said. "We have to come out against Washington and get a good win there and continue this momentum."
All-Star Kevin Garnett had 19 points and 17 rebounds Wednesday for his league-leading 45th double-double, and the Timberwolves got another solid performance from Mark Blount.
The 7-footer scored 24 points, including eight straight in the final 2:30, and is averaging 22.8 points - 8.9 above than his season average - in his last four games.
"He's a forced to be reckoned with when we win," Garnett said. "When we win, Mark Blount has always been a big part of it.''
Garnett averaged 20.0 and 12.0 rebounds against Washington in 2005-06. The teams conclude their season series Sunday at the Target Center.
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