Randy Wittman seems to be a guy who likes to color within the lines. And sure there is an occasional twitch, a little jerk that sends his coaching marker beyond expectations – take for example his colorful exchange with JaVale McGee, which left both men red in the face.
But slip-ups like that, at the very least, let you know that the guy is human.
“Trust me, I don’t want to be standing here talking with you guys,” he said with a smirk before Wednesday night’s game versus the Golden State Warriors, filling in for Flip Saunders, who was with his ailing mother who recently passed away. Even with his disarming smile, you could tell that there was a fire in Wittman’s words, a communication of purpose. Such passion is expected from a man who has lived and breathed basketball since the ’70s, I imagine.
“The effort has to be better, obviously,” said Wittman during his pregame presser. “It can’t fluctuate. […] To win in this league and be a winner in this league you can’t have fluctuations in your effort, energy, and desire playing. Chicago kind of took that out of us … they kind of took the will to win away from us and that can’t happen.”
He went on to say that effort — effort! – must be a point of emphasis for the team over the rest of the waning season.
The Wizards competed early in a high-scoring first quarter in which the two teams combined for 65 points. Nick Young was hot, putting his Iverson-inspired cornrows to work for 11 points; Andray Blatche took advantage of his size, adding ten points of his own; and John Wall was assertive early, earning a couple of trips to the free throw line.
And then the second quarter happened. The Warriors showcased their superiority by beating the Wizards at their own game. They gassed the home team in transition and beat them up inside with a heavy dose of pick-and-roll, building an 11-point halftime lead. The third quarter was more of the same from both teams and, at one point, the Warriors led by 20 points.
The fourth quarter was a breath of fresh air, a kiss of life. The comeback featured a combination of Trevor Booker, Blatche, Young, Wall, Mo Evans, and Jordan Crawford. JaVale McGee, Josh Howard, Rashard Lewis, Kevin Seraphin and Yi Jianlian didn’t even set foot on the court. The result? The Warriors didn’t score a single point in the paint or in transition and managed just one second chance point. Meanwhile, the Wizards rallied with 14 points in the paint, seven on the break and seven second chance points — they even forced six turnovers.
It was a near-complete turnaround; Washington outscored Golden State 28-15 in the final period, but fell short of the finish line again. The Wizards last words told tall tales of undaunted courage, while the Warriors shook their heads and kept moving forward, spurred by a sense of purpose and control over the action.
The Wizards’ clutch-time combination was not the most marketable, nor the most skilled. However (as a whole), they possessed one trait that you can’t teach: effort.
During his postgame press conference, Wittman mentioned that the Wizards loss to the Warriors was a microcosm of the entire season. Then he dropped a shot of napalm:
“We can’t afford to dig ourselves a hole. When you do, you don’t give up in the process. ‘Give up’ is maybe not the right word, it just kind of deflates. We just kind of walk up and down the floor feeling sorry for ourselves.”
No, no. “Give up” is exactly the right word(s). There! A coach finally came out and said it.
Cue all the old sports adages about winning. You know, about never quitting, or the difference between the size and the fight of hypothetical dogs. They would apply. Perfectly.
Perhaps I’m painting with a broad brush here. But today’s Wizards are a circus-sized canvas of taint.
It’s a recurring theme and a living nightmare for John Wall, who has never lost this many games in his life. Remember his postgame remarks after the Wizards rolled over versus the 76ers back on February 23?
“Nobody has heart. It’s frustrating to see that certain guys don’t have the effort to want to be out there, like they don’t care. That’s the toughest thing for me. No matter if I’m having a bad game or good game, I may show my frustration on my face, but I’m going to compete. That’s one thing I did my whole life, and that’s compete.”
Yeesh. What about that other rookie, Trevor Booker?
Booker had the rare opportunity to play the entire fourth quarter against Golden State, after seeing just over six-and-a-half minutes over the course of the game. He exploded, racking up eight rebounds, one steal and one block. Not only that, but his effort made Nick Young’s fourth quarter heroics (14 points) possible. “Cook Book” finished the game with seven points and 11 rebounds in less than 19 minutes. Maybe Wall and Booker give it their all because they’re young and don’t know any better. I’d like to think it’s due to something deeper and more pure — they simply give a damn … every time. They refuse to lose daily battles, even if the war has long been over.
Wittman’s fourth quarter rotation was different, but it worked. So what gives? Why do I have that gnawing feeling that we’ll go right back to the status quo when Saunders grabs the reins again? Let’s see a five-man line of John Wall, Nick Young, (a healthy) Rashard Lewis, Trevor Booker, and Andray Blatche. Crazy? Maybe. But sane hasn’t exactly worked out this season.
Let McGee ride the pine a bit; when he starts he’s almost guaranteed to pick up two quick fouls. Bring Howard off the bench too. That way, he can get away with taking as many mid-range jumpers as he fancies. If they object, hand them a kids’ menu and a box of crayons and tell them to stop crying.
Mo Evans has been in D.C. for a little over a week, but he had it right before the game. I asked him what he can bring to the team, even outside of Saunders’ system.
“Just playing hard. Period,” he said. “Effort. You don’t always have to know a system to give maximum effort. Defensively: getting back in transition … or trying to outplay someone, deny them the ball, cutting hard, and running the floor.”
Look, let’s accept that basketball is a fine art. The Wizards shouldn’t be looking to emulate Michelangelo, though. Picasso would be great — it doesn’t have to look pretty, but there is no denying the impressive intensity behind the abstract work. For some Wizards players, finger painting would suffice … at least they would be getting their hands dirty. During this rebuild, the players don’t have to be perfect — or anywhere close to it — but simply showing up with dry brushes should no longer be acceptable.
John Wall said what?
John Converse Townsend is a writer, a runner, and a brother. John was raised among wolves in Mexico and India, but today finds comfort living in Third World America. He made chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast this morning. Follow John on Twitter @JohnCTownsend