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Tuesday, January 9, 2007
Wizards center Thomas returning from ankle sprain

Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Center Etan Thomas will return to the Washington Wizards for Wednesday's game against the Chicago Bulls after missing a month with a sprained left ankle.

Etan Thomas

Thomas practiced Tuesday for the second consecutive day.

"He's in shape. He's got his wind," coach Eddie Jordan said, adding that Brendan Haywood will start at center against Chicago.

The Wizards have gone 10-3 since the bruising Thomas was injured Dec. 9 against Houston, allowing Haywood to regain the starting job he lost in the preseason. In 12 starts in that span, Haywood is averaging 9.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocks while shooting 63 percent.

Still, Jordan is thrilled to get Thomas back in uniform.

"You know how he plays, with that tenacity and that force and that power," Jordan said. "He was really protecting the rim at all costs. He was shot blocking, taking charges, rebounding. And we miss that. We really do."

Washington is 19-14 despite allowing 106.8 points per game; only Golden State gives up more: 107.1. Chicago (20-15) allows 95.

Since the preseason, Jordan has emphasized improving his club's defense.

"We want to be the best team in the East. The best. Not one of the best. The best team in the East. So we have to have a killer instinct at both ends of the floor. We've got to defend," Jordan said. "We have to start possessions ready to defend and we have to close out possessions with rebounding."

A healthy Thomas, who ranks third on the team with an average of 6.6 rebounds, should help in that department.

Forward Caron Butler does see some improvement, though.

"Defensively, I think we're starting to come together collectively to protect the paint a little better," said Butler, who's scored at least 20 points in six consecutive games. "We've got to do a better job of rebounding, but overall we're getting better."

Washington can cover up some defensive lapses with an offense that's averaging 108.1 points, second in the NBA behind Phoenix. The Wizards have scored at least 100 points in each of their last 17 games.

The last team to hold them under that mark? The Bulls, who beat the Wizards 112-94 on Dec. 2 at Chicago. Gilbert Arenas -- currently No. 2 in the league with a 30.5-point average -- shot only 3-for-11 that night, Antawn Jamison went 3-for-10, and they combined for 19 points.

"We just watched the tape. We didn't play very well. They really took it to us. Our minds weren't really in the right place. They took a lot of things away from us offensively. We have to learn from that," Jordan said. "We have to keep our composure against their really good man-to-man defense."

Since that game, though, the Wizards are 13-4. And they know they've been a different team on the road than at home, where they're off to a 13-3 start for the first time in more than 20 years.

"Whenever a team gets you at their house, there's always another opportunity to get back at 'em when you're playing them at your home," Butler said. "And we play well here."