WASHINGTON -- Year after year, the Washington Wizards talk about playing better defense. Team defense. Tough defense.
Well, that day finally has arrived, it seems.
Caron Butler had 25 points and nine rebounds, Antawn Jamison added 23 points and eight rebounds, and Washington forced 16 turnovers and held the Dallas Mavericks to 41.3 percent shooting Monday in the Wizards' 102-84 victory.
"We're being nastier and grittier defensively and our concentration level is up defensively," Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. "The theme tonight was, 'Each possession get better': The next possession on defense, get better. The next possession on defense, get tougher. The next possession, get into them tighter."
The attitude and the effort helped the Wizards earn their first season sweep of the Mavericks since 1996-97 and deal Dallas its biggest loss this season.
It also was the sixth time the 2007-08 Wizards have held an opponent under 85 points, something the club did not do once all of last season. Not surprisingly, Washington is 6-0 in those games.
"They've gotten a lot better defensively," Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki said. "They're trying to do the right things."
He did compile 21 points and 11 rebounds, and Josh Howard poured in 32 points. But only one other member of the Mavericks scored more than eight points.
"Usually, the key to our success is always our offense over the past couple of years," Butler said. "But now it's been the defense. And to win big games and get quality wins, you've got to play well at the defensive end."
After going more than a month without beating a team with a winning record, the Wizards have been doing that routinely of late. They have won five of their past six games - including beating the NBA-best Boston Celtics twice -- to take hold of fourth place in the Eastern Conference despite playing without star Gilbert Arenas since November.
Butler and Jamison have been leading the team on the court and in the locker room, and they're building strong cases to return to the All-Star Game.
Monday provided a perfect example.
It was a fairly even game, notable mainly for Howard's strong showing, when Washington's pair of starting forwards took over in the third quarter. Butler and Jamison combined for 19 consecutive Wizards points during a 6½-minute stretch, helping the hosts turn a one-point lead into their biggest margin of the game to that point, 67-58.
"We know with Gil out that we've got to maximize our forwards' scoring opportunities. We're trying to put them in different situations -- 3s, they pick-and-roll, they slash, they post up, they come off of screens," Jordan said. "If I have to call 100 plays, 95 of them are for our forwards."
Butler had five assists and five steals and also went 2-for-2 on free throws to extend his franchise record and NBA season high to 56 in a row at the line.
The Mavericks had won eight of their previous nine games. But they once again were stopped by the Wizards, who add this victory to their 110-98 decision at Dallas on Nov. 26, shortly after Arenas had left knee surgery for a second time.
This time, Washington kept adding to its advantage, leading by as many as 15 early in the fourth quarter. The final margin was Washington's largest of the game, and it came courtesy of Butler's 3-pointer from 33 feet with 16.3 seconds left.
Similarly, at the end of the first half, DeShawn Stevenson made a 3-pointer in the closing seconds to put Washington ahead 46-41 at the break.
"Even when our defense was good," Dallas coach Avery Johnson said, "they made us pay."
- Wizards center Etan Thomas walked out early in the third quarter in a three-piece suit and tie to sit on a seat at the end of Washington's sideline. Thomas spoke before the game about his return from open heart surgery. He's waiting for team doctors to clear him to begin practicing.
- Arenas reiterated that he could see himself being a reserve for the first four or five games after he comes back from surgery. Jamison scoffed when asked about that. "That's Gilbert. He's going to say things to make you all talk," Jamison said. "We see him as a starter."