Last season, Gilbert Arenas boldly predicted the Washington Wizards would reach the NBA finals. A season-ending knee injury left that prediction unfulfilled.

With Arenas healthy again, the Wizards will try to get off to a quick start on Wednesday night when they kick off the regular season against the Indiana Pacers at Conseco Fieldhouse.

Washington swept the three-game season series from Indiana in 2006-07, and also will be looking for its first four-game winning streak in Indianapolis.

Arenas was third in the league in scoring with 28.4 points in 74 games before tearing his left knee during a loss to Charlotte on April 4. Now ready to begin his seventh season, Arenas is optimistic but more reserved about the Wizards' chances this season.

"It's about that time where we make that big stand. And this has to be the year, because we know the potential that we have," Arenas said. "So anything less than going past the second round is a failure."

Arenas' injury came one game after Caron Butler was lost for the season with a broken hand. Without the high-scoring duo in the lineup, Washington won only two of its final eight games to finish 41-41, and were swept by Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs.

"When we're healthy," coach Eddie Jordan said, "we're good."

Washington hasn't won an NBA title since 1978, when they were known as the Bullets, and having Arenas and Butler back in the lineup could help the Wizards in the wide-open Eastern Conference.

"It's like going back to school," Arenas said about starting the season. "You can't sleep that night; you've got all of your clothes ready to go. We are jelling as a group ... offensively and defensively, and we are ready to show what we have on Wednesday night."

Arenas scored a total of 70 points in two games against Indiana last season, and is averaging 25.8 points in 15 games against the Pacers.

Butler was averaging career highs of 19.1 points and 7.4 rebounds before his season-ending injury. The small forward struggled in two games against Indiana last season, though, totaling 14 points and six boards.

Still, Butler with Antawn Jamison, who was second on the team with 19.8 points per game while leading with 8.0 boards in 70 contests, gives Washington a strong presence up front. Jamison averaged 21.7 points and 8.7 rebounds in three games against Indiana, but also missed nearly a month midway through the season with right knee tendinitis.

Behind Arenas, Butler and Jamison, Washington led the East in scoring at 104.3 points. The Wizards also allowed a conference-high 104.9 points.

But Washington enters its opener battling injuries. Center Etan Thomas underwent heart surgery earlier this month and is out for the season, and rookie pivot Oleksiy Pecherov - Washington's first-round pick in 2006 - will miss up to two weeks after spraining his right ankle in practice on Sunday.

Washington struggled at the start of last season, winning only four of its first 13 games. It begins 2007-08 with 10 of its first 16 games on the road, where it went 15-26 last season.

"We don't want to wait 10, 15 games into the season - we have to get it off from the start," Jamison said. "Another slow start ... we know how that feels."

The Pacers, meanwhile, are hoping to return to the playoffs after their nine-year postseason run ended last season. They finished 35-47 - their worst record since 1988-89.

"I think if everybody does their job, we're going to be fine," said forward Jermaine O'Neal, who led Indiana with 19.4 points and 9.6 boards in 69 games last season. "I think everybody has to do a better job of understanding what they need to do away from basketball."

New coach Jim O'Brien replaces the fired Rick Carlisle and could be the right man to get the Pacers back in the postseason. In Boston and Philadelphia, O'Brien took teams with losing records to the playoff in his first season. He also led the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals in 2001-02, and has a 182-158 record in five seasons.

"We expect to be in the playoffs next season," O'Brien told the Pacers' official Web site. "This is all about winning. We would all be disappointed if we're not in the playoffs."

O'Neal, though, missed 13 games with ankle, knee and hamstring injuries, and faced Washington just once last season - he had 24 points and seven rebounds on March 14 in a 112-96 loss. In 24 career games against Washington, O'Neal is averaging 17.0 points and 8.9 rebounds.


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