The piece below originally appeared in the February 23, 2010 edition of ESPN’s Daily Dime.
Believe it or not, Flip Saunders is a relieved man. Out the door are the failed expectations of the previously constructed team. Now he can get back to what he likes to do, teaching.
Watch the Wizards coach on the sidelines now. He’s taking time to talk to his young players immediately after subbing them out the game. He’s pointing and instructing, imploring his students to do the same with each other. It’s not like Flip wasn’t giving it his coaching all before, it’s just that now he doesn’t have to stand by while the fruits of his labor go untrusted by inflexible veterans whose play insisted they knew better.
“Well, I could always apply for a job as an air traffic controller,” said Saunders when asked how his in-game teaching has increased after the Wizards’ flurry of recent trades. Since, his team has gone 3-1, defeating the Chicago Bulls 101-95 on Monday night. “As a coach, that’s what you kind of enjoy. You live for those types of things, especially when you have a group that we have. They want to learn. So when you tell them something, they’re trusting. When you get your players to trust what you’re doing, what happens is they do it a lot more aggressively and you usually have a little better outcome.”
You wouldn’t immediately know it, but that’s a pretty damning statement about the past regime of players. When Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, and even Gilbert Arenas for a brief time were the offensive cogs, lack of trust, in terms of the system and each other, was the prevalent theme as to why a team with high pre-season expectations just wasn’t clicking. “Selfish basketball,” is the idea team president Ernie Grunfeld has opted for in several recent public statements.
“Not taking away from the guys we had, but I think they thought that we’ll just play and get back in it when we have to. That doesn’t always work. So we [now] play with a greater sense of urgency,” said Saunders, complimenting the effort of his new team. But it also serves as an indictment of yesterday’s team. Who would have thought that less than a week removed from the trade deadline, Wizards fans would be saying good riddance to their former heroes?
Heading into the all-star break, Saunders was given a C-minus for his work. And while these Wizards shouldn’t exactly get their hopes up with playoff pipe dreams, fans should trust that Saunders’ A-plus beginnings to the season’s second session will guide the franchise toward a better future.
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It had all the hallmarks of the kind of game the old Wizards lost in the first half of the season: hot opponent (Chicago came in having won four straight) but decent start, unlucky injury (Josh Howard’s left knee) and subpar second quarter (7 turnovers) resulting in a double-digit halftime lead for the visitors.
Except this isn’t the first half of the season, and apparently, not the same team.
Andray Blatche led the Wizards in scoring with game-high 25-points including nine in a pivotal third quarter when the Wizards outscored the Bulls 31-16 to erase a ten-point half time deficit. In short Blatche is playing like an All-Star.
“Let me tell you one thing, it was just so crazy. When all these guys (players acquired in trades) got here the chemistry was like we’ve been together since the beginning of the season,” Blatche explained. “We all have one thing in mind and that’s winning. We all are working hard together competing and everything is paying off well for us.”
Blatche also had 11-rebounds and James Singleton, one of the newcomers Blatche referred to, pulled in a season high 12 rebounds as the Wizards won the battle of the boards 43-36 against the NBA’s best rebounding team.
To the delight of much of the announced 14,113 at Verizon Center, the Wizards opened the third quarter with a 16-2 run to erase a 10-point halftime deficit and withstood a late rally by the Bulls, who trimmed the lead to 96-95 with 1 minute 55 seconds to play. From there, Thornton made a seven-foot turnaround jumper, Randy Foye followed with a 18-footer, and defense did the rest.
In the wake of all the shuffling, the Washington Wizards were left with two players who had been with the team since 2007. One is Nick Young. The other is Andre Blatche. Despite five years with the team, Blatche hadn’t logged 40 minutes in a game all season — in fact, to find a night where you he took such a large role in a game, you have to go all the way back to February 1, 2008.
That is, until last night.
Whatever stank the Wizards have had all season seemed to rub off on the Bulls in the third quarter, during when they shot 7-for-21 and got outscored 31-16. The Chicago players just never looked like they had a sense of urgency. Not until abou midway through the fourth quarter, anyway. And it cost them.
Free Joakim Noah!
Free Joakim Noah!
“I want to play,” the Bulls plantar fasciitis gripped center was saying quietly in the Bulls locker room after the team was blowing a 10-point third quarter lead and losing 101-95 to what passes for the Washington Wizards these days. “I want to play. What can say? I’m not going to go in the media and say, ‘I want more playing time. I’m not happy with the situation.’ It is what it is. They told me this was going to happen. They want to ease me into it.
Thornton then isolated again and missed, but someone named James Singleton, who had a game high 12 rebounds, got the rebound and then freed Randy Foye for an 18 footer by picking off Rose, who got no help off the screen as the Bulls were a step slow on defense—or more—all second half. Foye’s jumper gave Washington a 100-95 lead with a minute left. The Bulls then broke down trying to go to Rose and eventually went to a gasping Miller for a three from the right wing that came up short to effectively end the comeback and four game winning streak.
So thank you for the Bulls for once again showing the world that you are an average team at best, since an above average team would have not lost to this team of rejects. I don’t care how “underrated” Andray Blatche is…it’s Andray Blatche, and believe me, he’s very stoppable. And the Bulls didn’t come close to stopping him. And that type of effort, especially against bad teams, is going to take you directly to the 9-seed.
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Blatche now calls Washington, D.C., “my second home.” He returns to Syracuse once or twice a year, but not as often as he used to since his mother, Angela Oliver, has moved back to South Carolina.
She visits Blatche a couple times each month, but Blatche said his mom is now busy with his younger brother, Tre, who is now a 17-year-old high school junior. The 6-foot-8 Tre plays on a team that’s 22-0 and ranked No. 1 in South Carolina.
“He got a couple letters (from colleges),” Blatche said. “He’s so excited.”
Blatche smiled and, despite the braces, he seemed very much like a wizened veteran getting pleasure from the youthful exuberance of his younger brother. He seemed older than his years, and yet he is on the precipice of the first real opportunity of his young career.