Sometimes a Win Isn't Just a Win

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Winning one measly NBA home game in November really can mean something when it doubles your victory total for the season, when you're at the bottom of the league in every defensive ranking, when the players are walking around with long faces and slumped shoulders, when everybody's confidence is shot. The Washington Wizards will have to do a lot of digging to get out of the hole they made for themselves to start this season, and last night's victory over Golden State is but the first shovel-full. But it is, at least, a start.

A pair of all-stars played up to their potential. The young and absurdly athletic center moved like a kangaroo around the basket. The reserve forward with unlimited basketball potential, an insatiable penchant for nightlife and zero work habits was uncommonly productive. The Wizards, at least for this one night, played with the intensity and attention to detail their new coach demanded. Of course, if they'd played with the same purpose the first 11 games of the season they wouldn't have gotten their old coach fired. But that ground has been plowed now.

The Wizards got the bounce one would expect them to get from a new head coach. It certainly didn't hurt that the opponent, Golden State, entered last night's game as one of the only teams in the NBA ranked lower in team defense than the Wizards. And Washington threw an offensive party, putting up 93 points by the end of three quarters. Coach Ed Tapscott asked for better, tougher rebounding, and the Wizards responded by outrebounding the Warriors, 42-26, through the first three quarters.

It was a hint of what the Wizards can be when they're paying attention to the difficult parts of the game such as defense and rebounding. It's also the type of result that drives you crazy about the Wizards because they do what they're supposed to do so infrequently.

As far as defensive improvements, which Tapscott is making the No. 1 priority, it's hard to tell if the Wizards did anything different or better, beyond rebounding. "Most of my focus," Tapscott said, "has been on the defensive end. We've scored some points this season; we need to prevent some people from scoring. I want to see some charges taken. I want to see some fouls at the rim. I want them to get back in transition."

When rookie JaVale McGee delivered a hard foul early on a Golden State player, Tapscott turned to the bench and screamed that this was exactly what he wanted to see more frequently, that "you can't just drive the ball on [the Wizards] without there being a response."

Tapscott also talked last night about the Wizards developing "a signature, a team has to have a signature. We're still in the developmental stage." He was talking about beating the opposition in hustle points, second-chance points, defensive stops. "We do not want to be a one-dimensional team," he said.

None of this stuff sounds like too much to ask for a contending team. But it's been too much to ask of these Wizards for four years. The question now is whether Tapscott can get something from these Wizards they haven't appeared to have and get it when they face an opponent that will put up much more resistance than the Warriors did last night.

Take Andray Blatche for starters. At 6 feet 11, Blatche has every skill you'd want a basketball player to have. Four years in the league now, he ought to be a front-line player, a starter at the very least, a guy pushing to be an all-star. His skills demand it. Blatche, if he ever learned to work at his craft, which might allow him to play consistently to his potential, in tandem with wunderkind McGee up front could be devastating. They could make folks here stop fretting over the absence of Gilbert Arenas. Yes, Blatche is that skilled. How else do you put up -- get this -- 25 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 blocked shots in 29 minutes?

That's a line that Kevin Garnett puts up.

Blatche is what is called in the trade "a coach killer," a guy who shows you just enough to get your hopes out of whack.

He and Arenas can turn a coach into a broadcaster almost overnight.

Asked afterward what kind of wild card Blatche might be, Tapscott said: "If you play cards you know, you never know when that wild card comes up. Tonight we saw his full array of skills and abilities."

And tomorrow night against Orlando and Dwight Howard? Who knows whether the wild card will even be in the deck.

Some things under Tapscott won't be a surprise. He plans to ride Caron Butler (35 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists) and Antawn Jamison (25 points, 11 rebounds) as much as is reasonable and keep one of the two on the court at all times. He wants to moderate the expectations for McGee, who played only two years of college basketball, and plans to play the 20-year-old rookie 20 to 24 minutes (he played 20 last night) per game until his conditioning improves. When Golden State's Don Nelson, the master of the matchup, started to go after Washington's diminutive Dee Brown, Tapscott countered with a huge lineup of 6-5 DeShawn Stevenson, 6-7 Butler at shooting guard, 6-9 Jamison at small forward, Blatche and McGee. They helped the Wizards win the rebounding battle, 54-40.

Afterward, Tapscott was a million miles from celebratory, even though it was his first victory as an NBA coach, achieved in the city where he grew up, in front of his parents and family members and probably dozens of friends who always hoped he could work closer to home than New York, Milwaukee, Phoenix and Charlotte. Tapscott has been around the game in too many different capacities to get nuts about any one game. He cared to the extent that, "to break the slide was a great thing for them."

And he reminded everybody listening to his initial postgame press conference as an NBA coach of just how difficult it will be to do this, oh, 45 times or so the rest of this season. "This is a marathon," Tapscott said. Step two comes Thanksgiving night against Orlando.

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