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As Wizards win, turnstiles move

January 19, 2007 12:50 am


Washington coach Eddie Jordan has led the Wizards to an Eastern Conference-best 16-3 record at home.


WASHINGTON--The Wizards have won nine consecutive games at the Verizon Center, and at 16-3, they own the best home record in the Eastern Conference.

Forward Caron Butler does not think the quick start is an accident.

"The fans are backing us," Butler said Wednesday night, after his last-minute dunk had sent Washington to a 99-98 victory against the New York Knicks. "When you've got that fan support, people coming out and supporting you through thick and thin, it means a lot."

Butler is not simply speaking fluff. The Wizards' home attendance this season is their highest in the post-Michael Jordan era.

Through 19 home games, Washington is averaging 17,903 fans per game, a 4 percent increase over last season's average.

In 2003-04, the first season after Jordan retired, Washington averaged just 15,703 fans per game. That year, the Wizards ranked 21st in the league in attendance. They were 14th in '04-'05 (17,196) and 16th last season (17,122), but this year they have moved up to 13th.

"We feel so confident in this building that anything can happen," point guard Gilbert Arenas said. "If we're down four with five seconds left, we feel we can get a 3-pointer and the and-one. That's where our comfort level is right now."

It could be the start of a successful cycle for Washington. The better the fan support, they say, they better they play. And the better they play, the more fans could want to catch a glimpse.

The impending playoff run is likely to boost ticket sales down the season's stretch run, and three of Washington's next four home games will come against the Phoenix Suns, Detroit Pistons and Los Angeles Lakers, all of which are traditionally high draws.

With a home victory against the Celtics tomorrow night, the Wizards would have a 10-game home winning streak for the first time since the 1988-89 season.

"No matter what the road record," forward Antawn Jamison said, "at home it's always been good."

Magic men

If the season ended this morning, the Wizards would hold the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

But if the season truly ended this morning, there probably would not be any playoffs, because it is only January.

Arenas gets the point.

"Nothing is determined right now," the point guard said. "One win, you're in second place; one loss, you're in seventh."

Still, at 22-16, the Wizards have put themselves in a favorable position. And tonight, when they visit the Orlando Magic (22-17), first place in the Southeast Division will be on the line.

"This is a really big game," Jamison said. "We get this one, we're up 2-1 in the season series against them with one more to play, so we definitely need this one."

The winner of the four-game season series would hold the tiebreaker if the teams finish the season with the same record.

The Magic took a 106-103 victory when these teams met in Orlando on Nov. 6. But on Dec. 29, the Wizards responded with a 112-111 win at the Verizon Center.

The Magic are 14-6 at home this year, while the Wizards are 6-13 on the road.

Orlando is led by the 21-year-old center Dwight Howard, who leads the team in scoring (17.4) and rebounding (12.6). But Arenas said the Magic's success hinges on a 34-year-old veteran.

"It's all Grant Hill," Arenas said of the former Duke star, who is averaging 14.7 points per game. "When he's healthy, that team goes."

Hill has struggled recently, averaging 6.5 points over Orlando's last two games, both of which were losses.

No double-trouble

Few opponents have chosen to double-team Arenas this season. The Knicks tried, and it worked for the better part of the game, as Arenas was held to 16 points on 4 of 14 shooting.

But with the Wizards trailing by a point on their final possession, Arenas passed the ball to Jamison, who found DeShawn Stevenson, who found Butler for the winning dunk.

After the game, several Wizards wanted to make it clear they were more than capable of taking advantage of a four-on-three situation when Arenas is doubled.

"We have guys that can score 20 or 30 points a game," Butler said. "You have to man-up and guard Gilbert."

To reach ADAM HIMMELSBACH: 540/374-5442

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