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Jamison holds onto lofty goals

How wrong was I about the Washington Wizards? I thought they'd win 50 games and challenge Atlanta for the No. 4 seed in the East.

Antawn Jamison, however, thinks my forecast may not be so far off.

"I expect a lot," said their 6-9 captain. "I expect more than you expect."

But the 7-15 Wizards are last in the Southeast amid a five-game losing streak, including four losses by two points or fewer. On Monday, they launched a four-game trip through the West by abandoning a lead of 17 points in the third quarter to fall to the Clippers 97-95. Washington's preceding two losses, against Boston and Indiana, might have turned the other way had Gilbert Arenas made free throws in the final 30 seconds.

"I've just come to the reality that this guy has been out of basketball the last two or so years," Jamison said of Arenas. "Your body hasn't been able to deal with basketball for the last two years, and then we expect you to come back to be the old Gilbert, shooting half-court shots."

On the one hand, the Wizards can't fairly assume that Arenas will renew his career as if he hadn't missed 149 games over the previous two years. On the other hand, they can't expect to go far without him.

"I kind of thought it would take at least up until the All-Star break, or a little after, before we see start seeing it more on a constant basis," said Jamison of Arenas' return to excellence. "But to think that this guy's going to come in and (score) 30-35 a night -- believe me, I want it to happen. It makes it easier for the rest of us. But guys are going to have to step up until he really gets back into the thick of things. I knew it was going to take some time, but I think he's doing pretty well. He's just got to stop listening to people and go out there and play his game."

Coming off a horrid 19-win season, the Wizards envisioned a bounce-back year based on the recoveries of Arenas and center Brendan Haywood, the hiring of coach Flip Saunders and the pre-draft trade for Mike Miller and Randy Foye. So far they've been playing like a team of strangers, with former All-Star CaronButler (16.7 ppg) struggling to develop a winning role as a No. 3 option now that many of his shots are going to Arenas (20.5 ppg).

Even so, the Wizards have been on the verge of turning all of their recent losses into victories. As always, Jamison is the constant. Last season he scored in double figures in all but two of his 81 games to average 22.2 points and 8.9 rebounds while his teammates foundered. This year, he has overcome a right shoulder injury to provide a team-leading 21.5 points in 13 games to go with 8.7 boards. The consistency of his production and effort has earned him a role of leadership, which he has been leveraging to demand better results from his team.

"We're all professionals, we all got the same common goal, we all know how to play the game and we all know how to play with one another. Early on, when I wasn't playing and everyone was like, 'Well, when you get back, when you get back ...' That's an excuse," Jamison said. "You're using that as a crutch. You shouldn't do that. You still got to go out there and find a way to get it done no matter who's out there on the court.

"Last year we did that a lot, [thinking] 'We don't have Gilbert, we don't have Brendan, and DeShawn [Stevenson] is not out there.' We still should have won more than what we did last year. So after going through what we went through early on, with me not playing and Mike being hurt, I just told guys, 'You know what? We can't use that as an excuse anymore. So what, we've been snake bitten so far as injuries the last couple of seasons. It happens. We shouldn't feel sorry for ourselves.' After getting that message across, guys realized that, no matter who's out there on the court, we should always give ourselves a chance to win."

At 33, Jamison still plays like a younger man with a lively, unorthodox game that makes him difficult to stop, whether he's spotting up for threes or spinning up wrong-footed leaners and drives in reverse. Other teams would love to have him -- imagine how much he would help the Cavaliers, who have shown interest in making a deal -- but Jamison doesn't want to leave. That's why he keeps a picture of the championship trophy on his locker wall. When he lifts his uniform to dress for each game, it's like lifting a veil to reveal his goal.

Once I signed here a couple of years ago, I made a commitment to the owners, the coaching staff and this organization that I was going to do everything possible to get it done," Jamison said. "My dad's a big believer in, if you set out to do something, you've got to finish the job. Don't take the easy road out and [say] 'Get rid of me or send me somewhere else.' I'm a loyal guy, and they believed in me here from day one. Just because things haven't gone well the last couple seasons, there's no need to jump ship and go somewhere else."

But Jamison understands better than anyone that time is running short. The Wizards are $8 million over the tax threshold with new ownership on the way as Ted Leonsis prepares to exercise his option following the death of Abe Pollin last month. If this group of players can't figure out how to play with one another, they may leave management with no option but to consider making changes at the trade deadline.

"I don't have another 12 years left in me," said Jamison. "The only thing left for me to accomplish is to win a championship. That's the only thing driving me, that's the only thing that's in my head. I do feel that this is an organization and a situation that can make that a reality. But it's going to take work and its going to take everything from me night in and night out. I realize that the sense of urgency is there as far as the window of opportunity, and I'll make the best of it and do all I can while I'm blessed with the opportunity to do it."

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