Wizards vs. 76ers: In preseason opener, Washington unveils new uniforms but can’t hide struggles

December 16, 2011

John Wall and Andray Blatche trapped Philadelphia 76ers guard Evan Turner in the corner at one point in the Washington Wizards’ preseason opener Friday night, frantically waving their arms and bouncing around until Wall eventually corralled the ball.

Wall took off on a full sprint, split two defenders, then spotted JaVale McGee out ahead. He tossed an underhand pass at an impossible angle that even the ultra-athletic McGee could not catch. McGee slapped at the ball and it hit off the backboard for a turnover.

“He just said he missed it,” Wall explained afterward of the miscue. “I don’t know what really to say.”

The Wizards didn’t do much well last season, but they knew how to connect for a highlight reel alley-oop dunk or two. But during their 103-78 loss to the 76ers at Verizon Center in front of an announced crowd of 11,419, the Wizards were so out of sorts, so out of sync that everything from the fundamental to the spectacular became unattainable.

The final result was so unpleasant that it couldn’t be eclipsed by the shiny new red, white and blue uniforms, logos and court design. The performance was vastly inferior to the presentation.

“I was disappointed with our main guys. They got their [butts] kicked,” said Coach Flip Saunders, who repeatedly buried his head in his hand as his team was walloped in every category. “It boils down to this: You’ve got to know and really become committed to playing winning-type basketball and playing the right way. We did not play the right way at both ends.”

Saunders stressed three areas of emphasis during training camp: cutting down turnovers, controlling the glass and locking down on defense. Afterward, he explained that with “two of those we were especially bad, the other we were really bad” as the Wizards had 20 turnovers to just 10 assists, were outrebounded 42-35, and allowed the 76ers to shoot 54 percent from the field through the first three quarters.

With owner Ted Leonsis seated by the bench, the Wizards trailed by 40 points late in the third quarter.

“We’re better than we showed,” veteran reserve guard Roger Mason Jr. said. “No one in this locker room wants to lose like this. Whether it’s a preseason game or anything. The biggest disappointing thing is, we didn’t compete. . . . We have to compete.”

Blatche was the only Wizard to score in double figures, finishing with 18 points, but Wall struggled mightily, missing nine of his 12 shots and scoring just eight points with six turnovers compared to just three assists. Saunders said Wall was “terrible. He was bad.”

Wall couldn’t hide his frustration, with his body language saying more than enough. He attempted to drive into the lane through three defenders, lost the ball and threw his hands in the air, looking for a foul or help of some kind. He did have one electrifying moment, when he used a wicked crossover dribble to get separation from Turner, then threw down an emphatic dunk. Wall flexed and cursed as he ran down the floor — after cutting the deficit to 38 points.

“I have no idea at all,” Wall said, when asked about why the team played so poorly. “I thought everybody was prepared. Everybody seemed like they were ready with the way we practiced and how we went through it. But today’s shoot-around wasn’t too good. Everybody wasn’t taking it seriously, focusing. If we don’t take a shoot-around seriously, it can relate to the game, and I think that’s what happened.”

Before the game, McGee was asked if the team had enough time to get ready for the regular season and replied: “Season was supposed to been started already. We ready to just play.”

But it hardly looked like they were prepared. On the first play of the game, Jordan Crawford made a baseline cut and didn’t even look up as Wall threw a pass that sailed over his shoulder for a turnover. Blatche later attempted to try too much on an offensive possession and shot the ball off the backboard. After one bad possession in the second half, Crawford stopped to scratch his head. It was a baffling display of basketball.

“There was no effort. There was no passion. Guys was just out there to be out there,” Blatche said after his team shot 32.9 percent from the field. “We have to get back to the drawing board.”

The only real bright spot for the Wizards is that it won’t count toward the 66-game regular season, but the performance zapped much of the enthusiasm and optimism that surrounded the team through training camp. It also served as a reminder of how far the team has to go before it can be taken seriously as anything other than a lottery squad.

But they also have little time to prepare for the season opener against the New Jersey Nets on Dec. 26, with just one more preseason game in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

“When you play like we did tonight, you need 20 preseason games to figure that one out,” Saunders said. “Preseason games aren’t going to matter, but we play [New Jersey] in 10 days, so we’ve got to have a sense of urgency.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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