By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 7, 2008
The Washington Wizards are not an elite NBA team when Gilbert Arenas is out with an injury, but they do have a core of players who have adapted to specific roles and play well together.
On the other end of the spectrum are the Seattle SuperSonics, a team with talented rookies in Kevin Durant and Jeff Green, a proven scorer who comes off the bench in Wally Szczerbiak and mix of other players who don't appear to play particularly well together.
The difference was glaring yesterday as the Sonics kept things interesting before the Wizards opened the fourth quarter with a 14-2 run and cruised to a 108-86 victory at Verizon Center.
Caron Butler finished with 33 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds and 4 steals, every Washington starter scored in double figures, and the Wizards shot 48.3 percent with only 11 turnovers. Guard DeShawn Stevenson took the challenge of defending Durant and helped make the Hyattsville native work to get 19 points on 7-of-21 shooting.
The Wizards (17-15) have won three of their last four games and continued a season-long trend of beating the teams they should. Their three most recent wins have all come against teams under .500 in Seattle (9-24), Milwaukee (13-20) and Miami (8-26).
Still, Coach Eddie Jordan and his veteran players sounded anything but giddy after the team's second straight win by 20 or more points (the Wizards won, 101-77, at Milwaukee on Friday night).
At halftime of yesterday's game, with his team leading 52-46, Jordan pounced on his players.
"I told our team at halftime, 'We're not that good,' " Jordan said. "We're not Boston, we're not Detroit. We're not that good to come out here and play the half that we played. I just wanted to stoke a fire and put reality on the table."
Said Butler: "It wasn't anger. It was a reality check. Yeah, we've won some games we are supposed to win but we haven't done anything yet."
Jordan's players -- particularly veterans Butler, Stevenson, Antonio Daniels and Antawn Jamison -- seemed to grasp the message and helped blow the game open early in the fourth with some of the best basketball the team has played this season.
Butler got things rolling with a 21-foot jumper, Daniels drove for a layup and then fed Roger Mason Jr. for a fast-break dunk. Darius Songaila eventually gave the Wizards a 92-71 lead with 7 minutes 41 seconds remaining by making a short jump hook in the lane.
The game wouldn't have been that competitive had it not been for Szczerbiak, who made 4 of 7 three-point attempts and totaled 18 points in just under 24 minutes. However, once pressured, the Sonics fell into a stretch where they took questionable shots, had disjointed possessions and fell apart defensively.
"The vets stepped up," said Stevenson, who scored 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting while chasing Durant around most of the game. "We've got guys like Caron and Antawn and they took over and we just got rolling. Now, we need to take that and not just do it against the Seattles but also against the Detroits and Bostons."
The Wizards will face tougher competition this week, beginning with tomorrow's home game against the Houston Rockets and continuing at Atlanta on Friday and at home against the Celtics on Saturday.
"We need to bring it night in and night out," Jamison said. "There are certain games that as a team you have to win. We can ill afford to take any games off. It starts with top guys and goes to the last guy coming off the bench. We have to do it as a group."
Wizards Note: The teams will meet again on March 26 in Seattle in what could be Washington's last visit to the city, should the Sonics move to Oklahoma City before next season. Seattle will always be special to the Bullets-Wizards franchise because the team clinched its only championship with a 105-99 win in Game 7 of the 1978 Finals at the old Seattle Coliseum.