The New Orleans Hornets have lost back-to-back games against division rivals, but their problems pale in comparison to those of the Washington Wizards.

With two of their top players sidelined, the Wizards look to avoid their 11th loss in 13 games as they visit the Hornets on Monday.

Washington (26-29) has been playing without last season's leading scorer Gilbert Arenas since mid-November, and All-Star forward Caron Butler has missed 11 of 13 games with a hip flexor strain.

Unfortunately for the Wizards, it doesn't look like either player will be ready to return soon. Arenas has been targeting a return on March 2, but said Saturday he doesn't expect to be ready then.

"If I wanted it to be, it can be realistic,'' said Arenas, who hasn't practiced with the team since undergoing surgery on his left knee for the second time in eight months on Nov. 21. "But, it's going to be longer to get into shape."

The two-time All-Star hasn't set a new target date for his return.

"It's hard to tell," Arenas said. "If I really want to get out there, I can play now, but are you going to get two good minutes out of me? Right now, it's about me trying to get my body into shape and ready to play again. That's where I'm at right now."

Butler, meanwhile, was examined by team physicians Saturday, and Wizards coach Eddie Jordan didn't sound encouraged by the results.

"He's not ready to go,'' Jordan said. "No long-range plan right now. He's not ready to practice. We may even cut back on some of his extraneous rehabbing - maybe calm him down a little more."

Despite the absence of both Arenas and Butler on Saturday, the Wizards beat lowly Charlotte 110-95 for their second win in 12 games.

"We're trying to get guys to close games out," said Jordan, whose club had all five starters in double figures. "The guys who are on the floor - that's not their role. It's their role now because that's what they have to do. We have to get wins when people don't expect us to get it."

That would certainly apply to this game against the Hornets (37-17), who are tied with San Antonio for the Southwest Division lead.

After beating Southwest rival Dallas in its first game after the All-Star break, however, New Orleans has lost its last two contests against other division opponents, falling 100-80 against Houston on Friday and 98-89 at San Antonio on Saturday.

"We knew this was going to be a tough stretch out of the All-Star break, but I liked the energy we came out with against Dallas," said All-Star forward David West, shooting 47.3 percent from the field this season but just 42.2 percent (19-for-45) since the break. "Then we weren't able to do that tonight. We couldn't do that last night."

The Hornets have lost three straight games only twice this season, Nov. 19-23 and Jan. 30-Feb. 4. Avoiding another three-game skid could be easier at home, where the franchise has won 10 straight games against the Wizards since the Charlotte Hornets fell to Washington 95-77 on Nov. 1, 2000.


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