By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
The Washington Wizards had just completed a 101-90 win at Atlanta last Nov. 11 when a relieved Coach Eddie Jordan emerged from the team's locker room to meet with reporters.
"Look, we needed this," Jordan said. "We all know that."
The victory not only provided some much-needed positive energy following a 0-5 start, it sparked a six-game winning streak that set the tone for a 43-win season and fourth consecutive playoff appearance.
One year and one day later, the Wizards are again 0-5 and hoping to avoid the worst start in franchise history when they host the Utah Jazz tonight at Verizon Center. And while no one associated with the team is panicking -- at least publicly -- the Wizards are fully aware that they are the only winless team remaining in the NBA.
While stressing the importance of the game after a spirited practice yesterday at Verizon Center, co-captain and two-time all-star forward Caron Butler said his teammates have not come close to questioning whether the team will remain competitive all season.
"Nah, never," Butler said. "There are too many games. If we are at this point a month from now and we are 0-20, I couldn't be as positive as I am right now. Now, we're cool. 0-20? Yeah, I'm in Tahiti mentally. But we're fine right now."
Still, 0-5 has been pretty ugly, as the Wizards have allowed an NBA-worst 108.8 points per game while opponents have shot an NBA-best 50.2 percent. The Wizards have lost close games (in overtime at Milwaukee) and they've been blown out (Saturday in Orlando).
They've lost when they missed a bunch of free throws (New Jersey and Milwaukee), when they've held a big fourth-quarter lead (Milwaukee), when they couldn't stop a hot player down the stretch (Detroit's Walter Herrmann) or faced a hot three-point shooting team (the Knicks).
Jordan isn't buying into the idea that his team has an advantage based on the way it rebounded from an 0-5 start last season.
"No, to the contrary," Jordan said. "I don't like starting two seasons off at 0-5. Looking back to last year we should've said, 'Look, we need to start off pretty good and not go 0-5 again.' But it's happened again and there's no comfort at all. It wears on you, but that's being in pro sports -- you have to find a way to get over it."
Jordan has good reason to feel that way because this team is different from the one that won six straight last November. For starters, Gilbert Arenas was a big part of the first three wins of that streak before re-injuring his surgically repaired left knee during a win at Minnesota on Nov. 16. Without the three-time all-star guard, they've often lacked playmaking and timely shot-making on offense, and without starting center Brendan Haywood, they have not consistently protected the basket and have lacked overall defensive cohesion.
Arenas finished with 18 points, 6 assists and 3 steals a year ago in Atlanta, had 30 points and 11 assists in a home win over Indiana and finished with 27 points, 8 assists and 4 steals in the win at Minnesota.
Haywood, Antonio Daniels and Roger Mason Jr., who signed with the San Antonio Spurs over the summer, were also factors in that winning streak.
Now, the Wizards are relying on a reshuffled rotation that includes Etan Thomas, who missed all of last season following open-heart surgery, inconsistent fourth-year player Andray Blatche and talented but young players such as Nick Young, Dominic McGuire and rookie center JaVale McGee.
The team's injury situation got worse Saturday when Daniels, the team's starting point guard, was forced to sit because of lingering soreness in his right knee.
Daniels did not practice yesterday but rode a stationary bike and hopes to return soon. Until he does, Jordan will count on veterans such as Butler, Antawn Jamison and Juan Dixon, who will make his second straight start in place of Daniels tonight, to carry the load.
Injuries to key players and relying on inexperienced youngsters typically result in losses in the NBA, but forward Darius Songaila, who was also a part of last season's turnaround, believes the Wizards have what it takes to bounce back.
"It's easy to put your head down, but we have veteran guys on this team and two all-stars who have been around for a long time, so we've all been through this kind of thing and we know what to expect," Songaila said. "We just have to take care of business. All the talking aside, we've just got to get it done."
The Jazz provides a good target for getting that first win. Although Utah is 6-1 after last night's win in Philadelphia, point guard Deron Williams missed the first six games because of an ankle injury. He made his season debut last night. The Jazz also will be razor thin at center tonight. Starter Mehmet Okur had to return to Turkey to deal with a family issue, reserve Kirilo Fesenko was in Canada yesterday handling a visa issue and reserve Jarron Collins is out with an elbow injury.
On top of that, the rested Wizards will catch the Jazz on a back-to-back after Coach Jerry Sloan's team played last night. It all adds up to an opportunity for the Wizards to get their first win and, perhaps, alleviate the pressure that is steadily building.
"Obviously we are not where anybody would like to be, but we've been in this situation before," President Ernie Grunfeld said. "We didn't want to be in it again but we have to fight our way through it. The only way to get out of this is to continue to compete, continue to fight and continue to play hard. If we do that, good things will happen."