TORONTO — Nick Young was dribbling above the three-point line, near the Washington Wizards’ bench, when Kevin Seraphin moved up to set a pick to free him up. Young moved around the screen but continued to dribble, seemingly without a purpose, until Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard knocked the ball away.
Wizards Coach Randy Wittman lifted his hands, shook his head, and started walking down the bench. Before J.J. Redick could even pull up for a wide three-pointer on the other end, Wittman had signaled for Jordan Crawford to enter the game for Young.
During a stoppage in play, Wittman walked over to Young, explained why he yanked him, then patted him on the side of his head. Young bounced back from his first-half benching and scored 20 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter of the Wizards’ 109-103 loss on Wednesday in Orlando, responding to Wittman’s discipline with inspired play instead of resentment.
“Randy, he’s a great motivator, great coach. He believes in us,” Young said afterward. “His speeches before games make you feel like you can go out and beat anybody.”
From the moment he stepped in for Flip Saunders, Wittman told his players he would hold them accountable, punish lackluster effort and reward hard work with more opportunities. Through his first five games, Wittman has been a man of his word and the Wizards have responded with some of their most encouraging performances — even if three of the games have ended with losses.
The Wizards (4-18) lost their last two games against Chicago and Orlando, but they had more rebounds than the Bulls — the league’s best rebounding team — and had more rebounds, assists and field goals against the Magic.
“We play like that night in and night out, we don’t have to worry about wins and losses, they are going to take care of themselves,” said Wittman, who will coach on Friday against the man he replaced in Minnesota, first-year Toronto Coach Dwane Casey.
When starters Young, John Wall, JaVale McGee and Jan Vesely struggled in the first quarter against Orlando, Wittman had no problem letting reserves Crawford, Shelvin Mack, Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker and Chris Singleton lead the Wizards back into the game with a 22-5 run that turned an 11-point deficit into a six-point lead. He also let them stay on the floor until their usefulness waned.
The Wizards have failed to let double-digit deficits serve as a deterrent from playing hard. “Usually, early on, we down 11 or maybe eight, we think we out of the game and stop competing. Now we just keep going, executing,” said Crawford, crediting Wittman for the change in their demeanor. “Everybody is starting to believe. He’s making everybody believe, too.”
Wittman proved in the second game that he wasn’t going to base opportunities on reputation, as he benched Andray Blatche in favor of Vesely. Wittman said he made the move because Vesely had earned the spot with his basketball intelligence and fit better with a running team. But team sources said the switch sent a clear message that no player, regardless of salary or experience, is entitled to playing time.
Several team insiders said Saunders’s talk of accountability often didn’t coincide with his actions and led some players to tune him out. So far, Wittman has held firm, with no security beyond this season and nothing to lose.
“He just disciplines the guys. When somebody makes a mistake, he lets them know, then tries to correct those mistakes,” veteran Rashard Lewis said of Wittman.
Wittman also has ditched Saunders’s thick playbook and implemented a much simpler offense and demanded his team to be more aggressive by attacking the glass for rebounds and pressuring the ball full court to force turnovers and get easier baskets.
Whether or not Wittman is benefiting from the initial honeymoon period that comes with being midseason replacement, the Wizards certainly have been playing at a different energy level since the change was made.
Wittman said he realizes that players may not be able to sustain the same intensity when the team plays four games in five nights or eventually has to play three nights in a row. But he added that he would always keep an eye open for “slippage.”
“I’ll cross that bridge when I have to,” Wittman said. “Right now, they’ve got me believing this is the way it’s going to be. That’s all I can go on right now. They haven’t given me any sign that they aren’t going to give me any energy or effort.”