A Defense Gone Up in Smoke

Zach Randolph's Knicks scored 113 on Brendan Haywood's Wizards.
Zach Randolph's Knicks scored 113 on Brendan Haywood's Wizards. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 22, 2008

The Washington Wizards visited Cleveland on Jan. 23 having won five of their previous six games, including two victories over the league-leading Boston Celtics and another over Western Conference power Dallas.

One of the keys to that successful stretch was an improved defensive approach that had allowed the Wizards to hold 11 of their previous 13 opponents below 100 points. That night however, the Cavaliers handed the Wizards one of their worst defeats of the season, a 121-85 beating that Coach Eddie Jordan labeled "painful" and point guard Antonio Daniels called "a major league butt-whipping."

Tonight, the struggling and injury-plagued Wizards (25-28) will return to Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena, but the solid defense they brought with them in January has only periodically been on display recently.

The Wizards have lost nine of their last 11, and in the 13 games since that dreadful loss to the Cavaliers (30-24), Washington's opponents have shot 48.7 percent and averaged 103.8 points.

The reasons for the drop-off are numerous, beginning with an injury to all-star forward Caron Butler, who has missed six straight and nine of the last 11 games with a strained left hip flexor. Butler did not practice yesterday and will be a game-time decision for tonight's contest but probably won't play, according to Jordan.

Butler is averaging 21.4 points per game but his intensity and aggressiveness at both ends of the court have been missed as well.

"We want to see him go through a practice and see how he reacts after a practice," Jordan said yesterday. "So, that's going to be a two-day process. From my standpoint, from what I understand, it won't be a decision made overnight. It's going to be a process of him going through a physical process and then a recovery day. And then we'll see where he is on a recovery day."

Starting shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson has been bothered by a sore left knee for a few weeks, and starting point guard Antonio Daniels, who has missed 10 games with right knee and right ankle problems, is playing through soreness and stiffness in his right ankle.

Both players have struggled to contain opposing guards, plus the Wizards have failed to consistently rotate out on open shooters and have often been slow getting back on defense.

While neither Jordan nor his players have used the flurry of injuries -- Gilbert Arenas and Etan Thomas remain out -- as an excuse for the rough stretch, the Wizards clearly aren't playing with the same energy, intensity and cohesion at the defensive end as they were earlier in the season.

That was evident during Tuesday's 113-100 home loss to the New York Knicks, who erased Washington's nine-point fourth-quarter lead and then torched the Wizards for a franchise-record 23 overtime points.

When the Knicks weren't taking -- and making -- wide-open three-pointers, they were picking the Wizards apart with dribble penetration and basic pick-and-rolls that led to easy dunks.

"We have to go out there with more energy and do a better job of locking in on defense," Stevenson said. "We made it too easy for [the Knicks] and that's not going to get it done."

Wizards Notes: The Wizards beat the Cavaliers, who played without LeBron James, 105-86 at home on Dec. 5. The teams meet once more after tonight, March 13 at Verizon Center.

Cleveland was part of a three-team trade before yesterday's deadline. It was unknown as of yesterday evening whether the Cavaliers would have center Ben Wallace, forwards Wally Szczerbiak and Joe Smith, and guard Delonte West in time for tonight's game.

The Cavaliers parted with guards Larry Hughes and Ira Newble and forwards Drew Gooden, Donyell Marshall and Cedric Simmons. If the the new players are not yet available, the Cavaliers would be left with only eight players for tonight's game. Guard Sasha Pavlovic has been out with a foot injury and guard Daniel Gibson severely sprained his left ankle during Tuesday's win over Indiana and could miss six weeks.

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