Flip Saunders didn’t care about Tuesday night’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers. Well, not like he didn’t care, care. If you ask him, I’m sure he’ll tell you that he was damn glad to have a ‘W’ notched in the record book. The win wasn’t even one of those ‘whew, that was a close one, glad we came out on top’ victories of relief for the coach.
No, the Wizards’ 105-98 win over Eddie Jordan’s Sixers was more like a ‘Dammit, I’m still pissed that I had to sub all five of my starters out en masse with eight minutes left in the third quarter just to motivate this frickin’ 8-17 team’ type of night for Saunders.
After the game, I asked Saunders about that magic moment when he subbed Earl Boykins, Nick Young, Dominic McGuire, Andray Blatche and Fabricio Oberto all at once for Gilbert Arenas, Randy Foye, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood after watching his starters commit three turnovers and three fouls on their way to getting outscored 12-5 four minutes into the second half.
Before Saunders even answered my question, he retorted, “What did you see?”
I couldn’t think quickly enough to come up with some brilliant answer so I blurted out, “I saw a team that wasn’t into the game.” Evidently that answer was brilliant enough to be in tune with a well-respected NBA coach.
“That’s what I saw,” deadpanned Saunders as he looked me in the eye, giving indication that the path his team just took to victory is nothing to be proud of at all.
“I made three points after the game,” said Saunders. “Number one … you know, we had guys who were pissed, mad … I said you can be mad at me, but you’re not half as mad as I was with the effort that we gave.”
Saunders continued, ”The second point was you have to have enough confidence that when things aren’t going right, you can put guys in and they can give you energy, and get things turned around and try to get things going. That’s what a team is. That’s what the second group did.”
“And the third thing, to the credit to those guys that got taken out, they were upset at the time, but they came in and they played as hard as they’ve played in the last three or four games during that last quarter and we were able to come away with a win.”
The coach concluded, “To that point in the game, that got the biggest applause out of anything … taking those guys out of the game. If I was on the floor, I’d be more … at that time, they were probably more embarrassed than mad. As a coach, you gotta do what you think you gotta do.”
Antawn Jamison was sure mad when the substitution was made, or embarrassed, or whatever. He seemed to take that attitude more than anyone else as he headed to the baseline near the Wizards’ bench and hit the scrolling ad machine, finding a temporary, but unproductive outlet for his frustration.
Saunders’ motivational tactic worked, but he didn’t like the fact that he needed to use it. The starters returned to the court to start the fourth and the Wizards went on to outscore Philadelphia 33-19 in the final 12 minutes. Washington only had a 26-24 advantage in points in the paint after three periods. They finished the game with a 44-28 advantage. And much of that can be credited to the persistent driving of Arenas.
Philadelphia’s defense is pretty bad, but that shouldn’t take away from how relentless Arenas was. Totaling 31 for the game, ten of Arenas’ 12 fourth quarter points came in the paint. The other two came from the free-throw line, also courtesy of penetration into the lane. Caron Butler’s emphatic dunk on two Sixers to put the Wizards up 96-90 was the result of a Gilbert drive.
Antawn Jamison would not comment on what happened in the third quarter, and again invoked the fifth amendment when I asked what made him most angry when he took it out on the advertising machine. Gilbert Arenas said the mass substitution of Saunders was needed. Caron Butler insisted it wasn’t personal, saying, “When things happen like that, and you make adjustments and win the game, it’s not personal. Everybody’s trying to get the same goal, they’re trying to win games. If a coach does that, it’s discipline, you accept it, take a smack on the wrist, and you get prepared to get back out there and show what you’re capable of doing.”
Personal or not, what happened in the game should be unacceptable. As the Wizards scrambled to get ready for a 10:45 pm Verizon Center departure to go to Milwaukee, which made for a very rapid post-game interview session, I got a sense that complacent relief had taken over the locker room. It was as if a win to cure losing every once in a while was satisfactory.
I hope to god they prove me wrong. Nick Young called the upcoming Milwaukee/Minnesota/Memphis road tour “winnable games.” Poor, gullible kid. Don’t blame him. If the Wizards, especially the leading veterans, play these upcoming three games as simply “winnable” and not something they must take, then they will have made no progression at all.
Prior to the unfathomable loss against the Pacers about 10 days ago, I entitled a post, ‘For Wizards, each opportunity to step forward more important than the last.’ The same obviously still holds true for Caron Butler’s homecoming game against Brandon Jennings and the Bucks on Wednesday night. The NBA, where tests of a team’s will happen on a nightly basis.