By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010; D04
At some point, it disappeared. It could've been right when Josh Howard suffered his season-ending knee injury, or when the opponents on the Washington Wizards' schedule changed to more teams jostling for playoff position. But the excitement, the adrenaline rush and hustle that propelled the Wizards to three victories in their first four games after the trade-deadline flurry is gone.
The Wizards aren't that team anymore, and after giving a listless performance for most of a 96-88 loss to the Houston Rockets, forward James Singleton wondered what happened to an energetic bunch that has suddenly lost four in a row and six of its past seven games.
"When the trade happened, everybody was on a positive note. Then after that, I guess, a couple games after that, it settled down a bit," said Singleton, one of the pieces the Wizards acquired from Dallas. "Even though we might not make the playoffs, I don't want anybody to think that the season is over. The season is not over until the last game."
After Washington lost to the Boston Celtics on Sunday night, Coach Flip Saunders criticized his team for wilting in a game they led by 13 points with six minutes remaining. Saunders said he hoped his team had learned a lesson about staying competitive for longer than 42 minutes. Saunders likely would've given anything for at least 42 minutes of good basketball against the Rockets.
On Tuesday night, the Wizards were only good for about 10 minutes and the season-low 10,422 fans scattered around Verizon Center let the team hear it with a smattering of boos throughout the game. The Rockets didn't give the Wizards the opportunity for a late-game meltdown because they never lost control of the game after taking the lead for good in the second period.
Andray Blatche and Nick Young had 18 points to lead the Wizards, but Blatche had a difficult night as he missed 13 of his 22 field goal attempts and committed five turnovers. Saunders sat him for the final 4 minutes 34 seconds of the game.
"It was the worst game I played by far," Blatche said. "Coach said it to me on the bench. It was like I was in quicksand and I kept fighting harder . . . and I kept making it worse. I was trying to make a great pass or make a great play to give us energy. It was a terrible shooting night for me. I was forcing shots. I was forcing stuff."
Blatche made some terrible blunders with the basketball, including one inexplicable pass in the third quarter, when he threw a no-look, over-the-shoulder pass to no one in particular.
Saunders said he didn't think about reinserting Blatche down the stretch when the Wizards staged a non-threatening comeback. "We played the best we played at the end, with the group we had in there. We stuck with the guys we had," Saunders said. "'Dray struggled a lot. He wanted to carry the team, but he got in a situation where he tried to do too much."
Young had been in the midst of a major slump since the all-star break, but he surpassed his scoring total from the previous five games combined (15 points). Young made a fadeaway jumper to bring the Wizards to within 94-88 with 48.7 seconds remaining, but the Rockets were never in serious danger of losing the game. "I feel if I don't play well, I got to come out and play with everything," Young said. "Just being myself, trying to get comfortable out there, playing the game I played all my life and playing comfortably. I got my shot going a little earlier and told myself to keep going."
Luis Scola led all scorers with 23 points and also grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds. Kevin Martin, acquired at the trade deadline from Sacramento, added 21.
The Wizards will take Wednesday night off as they prepare for a grueling stretch ahead that will see them play three games on consecutive nights. They will host the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday to make up for the Feb. 6 game that was postponed because of the snowstorm. They will face the Detroit Pistons on Friday and host Orlando on Saturday.
Thornton said the Wizards can still regain that initial energy boost. "I think we can dig deep and get it back," Thornton said. "We just got to get back to playing together and playing for each other on both ends of the court. If we do that, we can get back to that."