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Change in Washington?

Fearless 5-foot-5-inch Wizard Earl Boykins takes his dribble right into the heart of the Celtics’ defense, scampering around 6-11 Kevin Garnett in the second half. Fearless 5-foot-5-inch Wizard Earl Boykins takes his dribble right into the heart of the Celtics’ defense, scampering around 6-11 Kevin Garnett in the second half. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / February 2, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Now that the FBI and D.C. police are done with their investigations, the atmosphere in the Wizards’ locker room should be improving, or at least healing.

The lockers of Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton are empty, and the rest of the team is trying to recover. With the NBA trade deadline (Feb. 18) looming, the threat of a firesale is a fresh concern.

When a well-dressed media member walked into the locker room, swingman Caron Butler, the Wizards’ most skilled and marketable player, and DeShawn Stevenson, perhaps the team’s most mercurial player, looked as if something was wrong.

Both thought the person was delivering news of a trade. Butler, whose name has been bandied about for weeks because of his age and defensive prowess, breathed a sigh of relief. It was only a reporter.

Matters were back to normal, for at least a day.

The Wizards are in the middle of a lost season. They were already struggling when Arenas and Crittenton brandished guns in the locker room after a Dec. 21 practice. Both have been suspended for the season, but not before the rest of the team was figuratively frisked and searched, leaving them at times unable to concentrate on basketball.

The 16-31 Wizards took on the Celtics last night looking for their first three-game winning streak of the season and a semblance of normalcy after a nightmarish season that has changed the perception of Wizards basketball and the behavior of NBA players.

A Wizards official said yesterday that the players are spooked by the media and the constant questions since Arenas admitted to bringing guns to Verizon Center, which is against the law and not permitted in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement.

“Some of these guys don’t even know what a grand jury is,’’ the team official said.

So excuse Butler and Stevenson if they are hypersensitive at the sight of a stranger on their premises. Butler chose not to talk about the situation. Most of the players walked in and out of the locker room. There is an eerie silence here and perhaps only change can end the malaise.

“There’s no question that distractions take away from focus,’’ coach Flip Saunders said. “I think when things are not going well, not only from the standpoint of on the court but off the court, you have a tendency to get too ‘Woe is me.’ There’s many times that we’ve gone into game situations that the game is almost secondary to everything else that was going on.’’

Following a 99-88 loss to the Celtics, the players were left to explain another fourth-quarter collapse and a difficult loss. Not only have the Wizards had to deal with one of the stranger off-court issues in recent NBA history, but they have been a failure on the court. They are 5-9 since Arena’s Arenas’s suspension and haven’t been .500 since Nov. 3.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers suggested in training camp that Washington was a team to watch and would compete for the playoffs. But the Wizards entered the game 21st in the league in points, 23d in field goal percentage, 28th in assists, and 26th in steals.

Saunders inherited a mess with Arenas coming off major knee surgery and no true point guard. Mike Miller, expected to stretch the floor with his 3-point shooting, has missed 26 games.

And just when the team started to play well, Arenas and Crittenton became engaged in a bitter argument over a card game on a team flight and magnified it to a ridiculous level a few days later. Arenas, in an effort to repair his image, submitted a written apology that will run in today’s Op-Ed section of the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, he left his team in shambles. The players generally like Arenas, although his immaturity and antics became an issue. With the death of owner Abe Pollin in November and the team potentially up for sale, a new era of basketball in Washington could be at hand.

In a basketball-crazed city, the Wizards/Bullets haven’t advanced past the Eastern Conference semifinals since Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, and Mitch Kupchak were wearing red-white-and-blue stripes and playing in Landover, Md. The city has been long suffering for a winner and Pollin invested $111 million into Arenas hoping to fulfill his championship dreams.

The end result was an embarrassing incident that could strain the organization for years. In a conference call with reporters yesterday, TNT’s Reggie Miller said the Indiana Pacers have never recovered from the Brawl at the Palace five years ago, and the same prolonged healing period could be in store for Washington.

Until then, there will be silence where there was chatter and an organization that was already in poor shape will be forced to rebuild again.

“Winning will always cure things,’’ forward Antawn Jamison said after a 2 for 17 performance in the loss. “Maybe we will do a couple of more team outings, but it’s been tough. The way we lose certain games at the end. Guys’ spirits are down. I’m to the point where I am fatigued a little bit. Hopefully we can stand pat before the All-Star break, get a way from it a little bit, refresh the batteries and come back with a new sense of urgency. Try to come back with at least one more push.

“Once we get that [All-Star] break, we are going to get away from it, clear our heads, hang out with the family and try to come back refreshed.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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