Ok, it was just one game … two games counting the win against Minnesota. With a 107-97 win over the Denver Nuggets, the Wizards have won two games in a row for just the sixth time all year (three has yet to be accomplished). Is it a reason to think this team just might do something crazy and sneak into the playoffs? Absolutely not. Is it a reason to get excited? A resounding yes.
Energy, effort, hustle and hunger were the themes tossed around the Verizon Center Friday night, the obvious reason why Wizards fans, even those who came to see Baltimore’s Carmelo Anthony, stood up and cheered for a brand of basketball that’s rarely been seen this season, if at all.
“I told guys at shoot-around, ‘We gotta play like a pack of mad dogs,’ and that’s how we played tonight,” said Flip Saunders after the game. The new guys, Josh Howard, Al Thornton and James Singleton set the example and led the way. “Thornton at 6’7″ can play like 6’10″ rebounding-wise, and Josh can play bigger, and of course Singleton. Those are energy guys,” the coach continued.
Thornton can score too, netting 17 of his 21 points in the second half. He arrived in D.C. at 2 am on Friday, and wasn’t able to participate in that morning’s shoot-around, but dug deep and found a way to play some damn good defense against Anthony. “Once Carmelo gets in a groove and gets in jab steps going, he’s very hard to guard. So, I just tried to get in him and frustrate him a little bit and make him take off-balanced shots,” Thornton said. Melo had 23 points in the game, but only five in the second half and zero in the fourth quarter. He shot 1-10 in the second half.
Yes, the Nuggets had to be tired in the second leg of a back-to-back where Anthony had hit a jumper in LeBron’s face to win the game Thursday night in Cleveland. But I’ll also remind you that Denver has the second best record in the Western Conference and these are the Washington Wizards. When asked if all of the new pieces were an advantage because opponents don’t exactly know how to prepare for these new Wizards, Saunders said, “Well, the disadvantage would be that we have a lot of new pieces and we don’t know how to prepare for ourselves.”
In the fourth quarter, Washington out-scored Denver 34-15 with only one starter, Josh Howard, receiving playing time. Mike Miller, Andray Blatche, Randy Foye and JaVale McGee also started to game, but Thornton, Singleton, Nick Young and Earl Boykins finished the game, each, along with Howard, playing all 12 minutes in the final period.
“We don’t play Andray or JaVale down the stretch, yet those are the guys that are up on the bench cheering the whole time in the 4th quarter. We haven’t had that this year. It’s been the guys that are on the floor and the guys on the bench,” said Saunders.
Hear that folks? A team. Not starters versus bench. Not veterans versus youth. A team. And not to say that those factions were previously at odds, nor to indicate so soon that the past two games are a big indictment of Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, DeShawn Stevenson and Brendan Haywood, although, it’s becoming clear that those guys were less hungry and less capable of unifying than what remains.
“When is the last time you saw Nick [Young] diving on the floor for loose balls and stuff? It becomes contagious,” said Saunders. Later, in the locker room, Nick would say, “When you see guys out there playing hard, you can’t do nothing but join them.”
Young’s biggest play of the game came with 1:47 left in the fourth and the Wizards only up 102-97. He moved his feet against Chauncey Billups and drew a charge on the all-star guard. Washington closed out the game making all of their free-throws, going 22-25 on the night
Wizards fans can only hope lessons have been learned and complacency has been forgotten, now, when playing time is up for grabs, in addition to down the road when roles may be more defined.
So, snicker at playoff talk from the players if you will, or stay bitter at the way the team you used to know horribly fell below expectations, or even get mad because this team isn’t tanking for the NBA Draft Lottery. Take any of these unfortunate attitudes, but know that you could be missing a damn exciting basketball team that’s even worth watching when losing.