[Al Thornton might not be as worried about the Wizards trying to end their 0-19 road record, he just wants his team to win two games in a row this season -- something Flip Saunders' squad was able to accomplish seven times last season, but they never got three in a row. The Wizards haven't won three games in a row since April 4-9, 2008.]
As frustrating as it is to see the Wizards fight to take a 94-90 lead with 5:45 left only to see the Timberwolves snatch the game from their grasp 109-97, it’s not as concerning as how they started the night. It was an all-to-familiar situation for Flip Saunders, one that probably had him invoking the basketball gods, as he’s done before when his Wizards lose a close game late after starting poorly out of the gate. Flip has never wanted his players to scorn the deities of James Naismith’s game, but now with a baffling 0-19 on the road, he’s probably wondering what he did to deserve all of this.
The Wizards are clearly not yet in a position where they can take games. And give Minnesota a lot of credit. In the end, they found their rhythm, they moved the ball well, they played like they wanted to be winners. Washington did not. After the Wizards took that four point lead late in the game, followers of the team on Twitter began to believe … it was their night, finally. Not so fast.
After around a minute and a half where neither team scored, here’s what went down: Darko Milicic making a drive on Yi Jianlian from the three-point line, dribbling behind his back and then hitting a spinning, running hook shot in the lane; Kevin Love stopping on a dime and pulling up for a three as the trailer in transition; great ball movement freeing Darko for a hanging-on-the-rim dunk; same excellent ball movement (eight passes!) getting Wayne Ellington sprung for a three in the corner — these were all head-scratching events, somewhat. Sure, they were playing the Wizards, but all of this came from the Timberwolves?
Not to absolve Washington from blame on Minnesota’s final run — there were turnovers, bad close-outs and missed free-throws — but sometimes hot teams just can’t be stopped, capped by when Love pulled up and hit his final three with Rashard Lewis’ hand was in his face (he went 5-6 from deep on the night with 35 points, 11 rebounds and four assists). That shot gave the Wolves a 103-95 lead at the 2:19 mark of fourth quarter and essentially the game, when less than two and a half minutes earlier the Wizards were still holding on to that 94-90 lead.
Which brings us back to the beginning. Saunders has also often said that sometimes, late in close games, young players can revert back to old, bad habits. Against Minnesota, those old habits came busting out after the jump ball like Albert Haynesworth’s gut.
Let’s start with Nick Young, who scored 15 points on 5-14 shooting and had the second worst plus-minus on the team at minus-10; John Wall finished at minus-18. Young tightened his horse blinders before playing in Minneapolis. As early as the 10:40 mark of the first quarter, the Wizards ran a set to get him an isolated mid-range post against Corey Brewer in the right corner. Young backed down Brewer with two left-handed dribbles, with his back to the baseline while Darko Milicic came to double from that direction. JaVale McGee sprang wide open in a cut to the middle of the lane as Young turned baseline, toward the double, and fired a fade-away miss.
This is an old habit for Young (taking poor shots, not seeing teammates), but also a new thing (getting doubled). He must realize that with the glory and trash talk of 43 points comes tougher defenses. And to make his team better, he must see his teammates. Sure, sometimes his assists are low because he’s a niche player getting specific plays run for him. But when doubles come, he’s forced to play a much bigger part.
It used to be where Young’s game transgressions could fade into the background. Yes, the way he would hang his head was noticeable, but there were always more veteran scorers to shoulder the load. Now that’s not the case — Young no longer hangs his head as much, but he also plays a much larger role and can no longer get caught up worrying solely about his game.
John Wall doesn’t have many old habits, but here’s to hoping he doesn’t develop new ones that become old, especially with his pick and roll defense. I’ll get this disclaimer out of the way: he just doesn’t look 100-percent out there (at least Thursday night against Minnesota) … something about his movement that’s not as athletically fluid as you know him capable to be. Is it his foot? His knee? Anything else? Who knows. Wall’s stat line looks decent: 14 points (4-11 FGs, 6-8 FTs), 10 assists, two turnovers, four rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot, but his defense certainly isn’t No. 1 draft pick worthy.
It’s also hard to tell if Wall and his teammates were simply getting abused by the screening action led by T-Wolves point guard Luke Ridnour, or if the game plan was flawed. Early on, Wall over-played on the screen several times, seemingly with the intent of getting Ridnour to turn in the other direction and not use the screen. Problem is, Wall would jump out and get caught over-playing so badly that he’d get out of position and his corresponding big man teammate (Rashard Lewis or Yi Jianlian in the beginning) would over-help on Ridnour, leaving the secondary defensive help scrambling to cover the roll/fade man.
Again, maybe it was the plan to leave Kevin Love open for jumpers … just not that wide-open, rendering the implementation of the plan ineffective. Whatever the case, the Wizards’ defensive timing was severely off and whatever the coverage idea was, it didn’t work.
Minnesota’s offensive scheming, which was very impressive at times, sprung Love for several jumpers off P&R action in the first quarter. He finished the period with 14 points on 6-8 from the field (only one of those buckets came in the paint), leading his team to a 28-18 lead after one. After that, it was the same old story for the Wizards … another notch in the loss column and a 10-27 record.
It almost feels like too much to hear increased calls for a coaching change after this single game, but 0-19 is a disturbing trend. Saunders’ team continues to fail in the ‘sense of urgency’ department. Shed all the tears you want about Andray Blatche being injured, or Josh Howard being injured, or there being a lot of new pieces, but those excuses are getting rather old.
This damning sentiment resorted to by the Washington Post’s Michael Lee is rather telling:
“….the Wizards didn’t lose to the Minnesota because of youth. The oldest player on the floor for Timberwolves was 29-year-old Luke Ridnour. Ridnour was surrounded by Darko Milicic (25), Corey Brewer (24), Wayne Ellington (23), Kevin Love (22). Not exactly a crew of chiseled, playoff-tested veterans. And, this was a team that had lost five in a row, with three of them decided by three points.
The Timberwolves don’t have a knack for finishing, either.
So, that excuse about age and inexperience is growing pretty stale…”
Maybe a coaching replacement isn’t around the corner, as Lee also reports that league sources don’t believe Saunders is on the hot seat. So if a change is unlikely to happen at this point, something needs to change with the coach. Flip’s players do not play inspired, they don’t understand focus, they aren’t working as a unit. Sometimes they do, but far too rare than should be acceptable.
It’s not an easy job, but it’s Flip’s job. Maybe there isn’t a sense of urgency surrounding Ted Leonsis’ rebuilding project as a whole, but something must be done about it for individual games. Because the next step after stale is rotten … and the basketball gods aren’t too happy when their ambrosia turns bad.