WASHINGTON (AP) -All-Star forward Caron Butler returned to practice Monday for the Washington Wizards, giving the struggling team hope that it can finally put its best lineup on the court in the final weeks of the season.
Butler's return came six days after three-time All-Star point guard Gilbert Arenas took part in a full-contact practice for the first time since November. There remains no timetable for either player to take part in a game - especially since both have had setbacks from trying to rush back too quickly - but their anxious teammates can hardly wait.
``It's almost like Christmas,'' team captain Antawn Jamison said. ``You're counting down the days until you can finally open the presents.''
Butler hasn't played since Feb. 5. He was originally diagnosed with a strained hip flexor in late January. He sat out three games, played in two, then shut himself down again. Soon afterward, an MRI exam discovered a small labral tear of the left hip joint.
``I went out there and coach put me right in the fire,'' Butler said. ``He said, 'Go play your game and be you out there.' I felt pretty good. I had a nice rhythm and my teammates were looking for me because they wanted me to get a feel for everything.''
Coach Eddie Jordan said Butler was ``still day-to-day.''
``He still needs another practice or so,'' Jordan said. ``We'll get a better read on him tomorrow. This was the first time he really went through contact and had to change direction in a scrimmage with intensity.''
Arenas, who had knee surgery just eight games into the season, did not practice Monday and instead had a workout and rehabilitation session. Even without Arenas, Jordan savored the fact that he had 12 players available and went immediately into a scrimmage - something that's been difficult to do in recent weeks without having one of his assistant coaches pose as player.
In addition to Butler and Arenas, the Wizards have gone through practices without Etan Thomas (recovering from open heart surgery), Antonio Daniels (ankle) and DeShawn Stevenson (knee). All were on the practice court Monday.
Now it's a matter of getting everyone on the main court.
``I pay attention to Caron a lot because I think he's really close to coming back,'' Stevenson said. ``I think Gilbert is close, too, but at the same time we need to make sure they're healthy. Hopefully we can get them all back at the same time.''
The Wizards have lost their last two home games - including Saturday against Charlotte - and began Monday only a half-game ahead of seventh-place Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference. Washington hosts Milwaukee on Tuesday.

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