No one likes moral victories. They aren’t supposed to happen in professional sports, at least not acknowledged. Moral victories? Those are for the college underdogs, the 15 or 16-seeds in the Big Dance.
But if you’re the Washington Wizards, fighting hard against the Orlando Magic to the point where the game was decided by a Gilbert Arenas missed runner in the paint (after being stuffed like turkeys on Thanksgiving night in Atlanta), you’ll take it as one to grow on.
“Well, we competed,” Flip Saunders said, almost reluctantly, after his team fell 100-99 in the waning seconds. “Had opportunities, I thought we could have very easily hung our heads when we got in the situation and got down 12, but fought back, had some great individual play.” The coach relented his answer before even being asked a question at his post-game press conference.
Wizards fans can only hope the players see the type of effort displayed against Orlando as more positive bricks in their project of rebuilding. Saunders had an excellent game plan and his players worked hard to implement it. But the little things made the difference on Saturday night, according to the Wizards’ coach.
“It’s just the little things,” Saunders noted. “We wanted to wrap [Dwight] Howard up, not let him get layups. We gave him too many layups.”
“I mean, he is a beast,” the coach later continued about the gargantuan Orlando center. “You know, you gotta grab him with both arms and try to hang on and hope that they call a foul and you don’t get hurt.”
For most of the night, the Wizards’ plan seemed to be to play Howard straight up, behind and not in front of him, and make him miss shots. Washington guards would flash down doubles at Howard to make him pick up the ball, but it often wasn’t a hard double, as they were hesitant to get burned by Orlando’s shooters.
And lest we forget, foul Howard frequently was a key part. Matching up JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche, Hilton Armstrong and Kevin Seraphin against Howard at different points of the game, Flip was intent on using almost all fouls available to him. Those four players combined for 16 of them.
In the first half Howard totaled 14 points on 6-8 shooting with 2-5 from the free-throw line. In the second half he scored 18 points on 6-11 shooting and 6-9 from the charity stripe.
But oddly enough, the Wizards out-scored the Magic in the paint 28-18 over the first two quarters and beat them in the battle of the boards 27-22. The main difference in Orlando’s 55-43 lead at intermission was that they made their shots, three more three-pointers and three more free-throws (with five more attempted than the Wizards).
Most of the damage came when Orlando took a 30-20 advantage after the end of the first quarter, but that comes with caveat that the Wizards didn’t look to be playing poorly. JaVale McGee came ready to work, and that attitude seemed to be exhumed by the entire team, even Andray Blatche was hustling (although, Blatche was over-aggressive in his hustle at times, falling for a Brandon Bass pump fake at least twice over the course of the game).
Also worth noting that newcomer Alonzo Gee set the tone with three offensive rebounds in the first quarter. Gee would finish the evening with eight points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals from 30 minutes of action in the starting lineup.
It’s just that when Gilbert Arenas and Blatche combine to go 3-13 from the field in the first period, 5-19 in the first half, a team with few dependable scoring options will struggle against one of the East’s best.
It was the third quarter when the young Wizards showed they weren’t ready to lie down and quit, and they were led by the veteran Arenas no less. Professor Rebirth No. 9 dropped 13 of his season-high 31 points in the third, appearing to be toying with J.J. Redick or Quentin Richardson in his ability to get to the basket. Arenas went 6-7 from the free-throw line as Washington out-scored Orlando 29-19 in the period.
The fourth quarter looked to be a heated contest between two evenly matched teams (well, relatively … with one to-be-noted exception). The Wizards were moving the ball well, Hilton Armstrong was filling in with hustle, even Blatche could be seen receiving a re-post pass only to kick it back out to Arenas for a bucket. Gilbert was hitting jumpers over Nelson and coming back down the court shaking his head as if to say, “You can’t guard me!” And Quentin Richardson was observed jawing at the Wizards bench, seemingly in Sam Cassell’s direction, as he hit a big three. It was compelling basketball.
Nick Young did his best to keep the Wizards afloat, catching fire in the fourth with 14 points, and a season-high 21 total in the game. ”That’s when I was in the zone, I felt like I could make every shot,” Young said afterward. But here’s where evenly matched fell dead.
The Young and Arenas show was no match for Howard, who scored Orlando’s last six points, including two clutch free-throws to put the Magic up 96-95 with 1:30 left. The kicker came with around four seconds left. Howard went to set a ball screen on Kirk Hinrich for Nelson. Hinrich positioned himself to guide Nelson away from the screen, but McGee didn’t close the gap, allowing Nelson to still use Howard’s body to get away from Hinrich. McGee was forced to switch and contest Nelson’s shot, which, because of JaVale’s long arms, was an airball. But with Howard crashing his way to the paint without a sizable Wizard to give him resistance, he caught the errant attempt and put it through the hoop.
“That’s what they do. If Jameer doesn’t have a good shot, he’s going to shoot it anyway just so Dwight can get that rebound,” opined Arenas. “Jameer put [JaVale] in a bad way where he had to try and block that shot.”
Defensive stopper Mickael Pietrus then guarded Arenas for what would be the game’s final play. Gil would later reveal that his strategy was to get a layup since the Magic might have figured that he’d shoot a jumper or pass the ball — Arenas had already gone 12-14 from the free-throw line on the night.
Arenas blew left past Pietrus with only one hesitation dribble when Howard came prowling to help, the obvious move by the center with little time on the clock. Which, would make me wonder, why not set up JaVale McGee on the opposite side from Arenas, who likes to drive left? McGee was planted in left short-corner instead. Perhaps, if he was placed on the right side, he would have been there for a lob in case Howard came too far off him to help on Arenas. But I’m not a coach. In any case, it wasn’t a bad attempt by Gilbert, they just don’t go down sometimes.
“Once I seen Dwight step over, I tried to float it up a little bit,” said Arenas. “Worst-case scenario it was going to bank in, and then I can come in here and say I meant to bank it.” Not on Saturday Gil, unfortunately.
“We played at the level we need to play at to win games, we just need to do it every night,” said Hinrich, who struggled from the field going 3-12 with nine points.
When John Wall gets healthy, one can mostly imagine that Hinrich will be relegated to the bench, tasked with providing a backcourt punch with Nick Young while John Wall and Arenas develop chemistry in the starting lineup. The would also allow Saunders to start someone who can compete athletically at the three, such as Alonzo Gee or Josh Howard or Al Thornton.
“It was encouraging taking baby steps to compete against … it was the first time we competed against a good team and had opportunities to win,” said Saunders.
The difference between moral victories and baby steps?
With baby steps, you move forward in a progression. With a moral victory, you become complacent with a false sense of accomplishment. Which way will these Wizards go, or grow? Well, they will have chance against a Miami Heat team struggling with its own cohesion and growth together on Monday night. Either the Wizards wilt against what’s supposed to be superior talent, or they go to South Beach throwing heaters. I’ll be interested to see.
“It’s just disappointing we didn’t come away with a win, because you’d like to have the win for the positive reinforcement,” concluded Saunders. Meanwhile, from the other side thanks to my colleague Rashad Mobley, Stan Van Gundy was saying, “I think the key to becoming a great team is you have to learn without losing.”
Flip on what was encouraging:
“What was encouraging is we out-rebounded them. We got thrashed by 30 rebounds in game No. 1. We competed, we fell behind, and we fought back, unlike we did as far as Atlanta. So, we moved the ball better at times. I thought we played with a little bit more confidence at times.”
Flip Saunders on what Alonzo Gee brings:
“Energy, defense, give us a little bit more defense. Give some offensive rebounding ability. Give us more defensive presence, that was a big thing.”
Saunders on subbing JaVale McGee out early in the first quarter, at the 8:17 mark with one foul, and the teaching moment he stopped to give McGee on his way to the bench:
“He had some mistakes early and I thought he was hyper, so hyper that he was playing out of character. He’s fronting in the post when he shouldn’t have been fronting. He’s getting caught doing things, so I just kind of wanted him to settle down a little bit, just relax.”